by Roger Schwarz
What does your team do when someone takes a meeting off-track? If your team is like most, the leader says something like, “Lee, that’s not what we’re talking about now” or “Let’s get back on track” or the team simply ignores Lee’s comment and tries to bring the conversation back to the original topic.
But if your team responds in any of these ways, Lee may continue to press his off-track point, the meeting may drag on with members getting more frustrated with Lee, and the team won’t accomplish its meeting goals. Or Lee may stop participating for the rest of the meeting and the team, without realizing it, loses Lee’s critical input and support for implementing a team decision.
If you assume that Lee or others who derail a meeting are the problem and the solution is to get them back on track or stop them from talking, you may also be off-track. These team members’ behaviors are often a symptom of larger team problems. Team members often make off-track comments when there isn’t clear agreement on the meeting’s purpose or process, or when the team doesn’t provide time to hear each team member’s thoughts on a topic. Sometimes the problem is that you think others are off-track when they are not. So how do you handle it?
Agree on the track before going down it. Team members can’t be off-track if the team hasn’t agreed about what track it’s on. If your team doesn’t explicitly agree on the purpose and topic for each part of the meeting, then team members will use their own understanding to decide what is on-track. Because members will naturally have different interpretations, one team member’s comments can easily seem off-track to others.
Start your meeting by saying something like, “My understanding of the purpose of this meeting is X; does anyone have a different understanding, or think we need to add anything?” Even if you called the meeting and set the agenda, this ensures that if people think other issues need to be addressed, they can say so, and have them considered for the agenda, rather than raising them as off-track items. If it’s not your meeting and there is no agenda, simply ask, “Can we take a minute to get clear on the purpose and topics for the meeting to make sure we accomplish what you need?”
Check that others are ready to move down the track. When moving to a new topic, rather than say, “O.K, let’s move on” or simply move on to a new topic, say something like, “I think we’re ready to move to topic Y; anyone have anything else we haven’t fully addressed on X?” If some people aren’t ready to move on, find out what needs to happen before they can move forward. This reduces the chance that people will re-raise issues that you thought had been fully discussed. If your team is staying on track but regularly runs out of time before completing its agenda, then you’re underestimating the amount of time necessary to make high-quality decisions that generate commitment. When you and the team agree on the track and make sure everyone is ready to move on, you are jointly designing next steps, which builds commitment to decisions.
Test your assumption that the meeting is getting derailed. If the team has agreed on the topic to discuss and you still think that someone is off-track, say something like, “Lee, I’m not seeing how your point about outsourcing is related to the topic of our planning process. Help me understand, how are they related?” When Lee responds, you and other team members might learn about a connection between the two topics that you hadn’t considered. For example, Lee might say that outsourcing will free up internal resources so that the team can complete the planning process in less time. If there is a connection, the team can decide whether it makes more sense to explore Lee’s idea now or later. If it turns out that Lee’s comment isn’t related but is still relevant for the team, you can suggest placing it on a future agenda. One caveat: there are times when it is critical to address team members’ issues immediately, even if they are off-track. If team members raise highly emotional issues about how the team is working together, it is important to acknowledge the issue’s importance and then decide whether it is more important to address than the current agenda topic. Sometimes focusing on how the team works together is more critical than focusing on the team’s substantive topics.
This isn’t simply a polite way of dealing with people who are off-track. It’s a way to suspend your assumption that you understand the situation and others don’t, to be curious about others’ views, and to ask people to be accountable for their own contributions so that the team can make an informed choice about how best to move forward. For this approach to work you can’t just say the words; you have to believe that Lee might be on-track and that you don’t see the connection.
By getting explicit agreement about the meeting purpose and topics and by being genuinely curious when people seem off-track, you and your team can move faster and accomplish more in your meetings.
Roger Schwarz is an organizational psychologist, leadership team consultant, and president and CEO of Roger Schwarz & Associates. He is the author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results. For more, visit www.schwarzassociates.com or find him on Twitter @LeadSmarter.