coworker monopolizes meetings with irrelevant topics

A reader writes:

I have a question about how to deal with one aspect of a co-worker’s conduct that is frustrating and annoying my colleagues and me. Our office has a staff meeting once a week where we are given updates and other necessary information by our supervisor.  It lasts about 20 minutes, and is quite informative and helpful. Then the boss says, “That’s all I have. Does anyone else have anything?”  Invariably, “Donna” will speak up and say she has a question.  She is the only one who does this 98% of the time.  Her questions are work related, but she could and should be asking the boss one-on-one because 98% of what she asks about doesn’t apply to the rest of us, just her particular area of responsibility, so none of the rest of us learn anything useful from it.

When given responses by the staff or the boss, she always argues about them and analyzes them to death, even when the answer is from our supervisor.  This goes on for the rest of the morning until lunch time.  She’s been with the Division several years, and I think she either loves the sound of her own voice or thinks she’s coming across as very knowledgeable, but in reality she’s a pain.  Her questions are not helpful to the group, and we can count on losing half a day every week because of this.  Last week was the last straw for me. The boss concluded his briefing and asked if anyone had any questions. She spoke up and said she did, as usual, but with a twist.  This time she said she had to “go pee” (her words) and told us all – the entire office staff – to sit there and wait until she came back!  I was stunned at the unmitigated arrogance!  That was the last straw for me.  I got up and walked back to my office. No one else did.

This woman is not an assistant manager, or any part of the management staff, and has no authority to be doing what she is doing. The boss doesn’t even like her all that much.  The problem is that he has a spine made of Jello and won’t tell her to knock it off.  We have recently been inundated with a larger number of additional cases, and have been told to expect even more to come due to changes in state regulations.  Our performance is measured in part by how quickly and well we manage our caseload, so I no longer have the luxury of being able to waste one entire morning a week on this woman’s foolishness.  I asked my colleagues how they feel about her conduct, and they say they feel the same as I do, but no one wants to do anything.  Trying to get her to talk to the boss in his office is like talking to a brick wall – it isn’t going to happen. She likes the attention she gets in the meetings.

I have decided to approach my boss and ask him if its ok to leave when he says he’s done and use the case load as an excuse.  I’m just wondering how that would look to him from a manager’s perspective, knowing that he absolutely hates confrontation of any type and will not address this on his own? I know he will tell me its ok, but I’m wondering what he will think.  I have also planned to tell my colleagues what I am doing and suggest they follow suit. What do you think, from a management perspective?

Yeah, ideally your manager would be dealing with this — by saying, “Let’s talk about that afterwards since it’s not a group issue.” And by changing his call for questions to “Does anyone have anything that impacts the whole group?” rather than the way he’s wording it now. And if it continues, telling her directly, “Hey, please start saving this sort of thing for one-on-one conversations since it doesn’t involve anyone else.”

This is hardly confrontational stuff, and the fact that he’s too much of a wimp to say something this basic is painful to even think about. (And if anyone reading this sees themselves in this guy, now is your chance to repent and reform, and start doing your job as a manager.)

So, if we accept that your manager isn’t going to help, I’d do what you suggested: Tell your boss that you’re finding that the Q&A portion of these meetings is almost always Donna-specific and ask if it’s okay for you to excuse yourself to get back to your case load when it becomes clear that the Q&A won’t be related to your work.

Because your boss is a wimp, it’s going to be extra important that you say this is a very low-key, matter-of-fact way. If you sound angry about it or like it’s at all a big deal, you will trigger him to think that it’s a big deal, and his wimp tendencies will kick in and he’ll be uncomfortable with your suggestion. But if you present it as very matter-of-fact — “Hey, our case load is so high right now that I’m worried about spending so much time on Donna’s questions since they won’t impact my projects, so I’m going to start heading back to my desk after the main part of the meeting is done if that’s okay with you” — you have a pretty good chance of him feeling fine about it.

Alternately, you could talk to Donna directly and ask her to save her questions for one-on-one conversations with whoever’s relevant to them.

And yet another option is to just deal with this on the spot the next time it happens:  When it becomes clear that the Q&A portion is just going to be the Donna show again, stand up and politely say, “Is it okay if I excuse myself now that the main part of the meeting is over? This question won’t impact me and I’ve got a huge case load waiting at my desk.” Ideally your colleagues would chime in with “me too” at that point.

Ultimately though, your manager is the real problem here. And I’ve got to think that the fact that you have a manager so unwilling to assert himself — and so willing to allow your and other people’s time to be wasted in such large quantities — means that this is far from the only problem you guys are facing. Consider me infuriated on your behalf.

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Joey

    Another, slightly different way. When your boss asks if anyone has anything make a recommendation that staff only bring up issues in meetings that pertain to everyone.

  2. Josh S

    As always, I think your advice is spot-on.

    As a related question, what do you do when the Boss/Manager is the one who tends to ramble on and on about things not related to your job?

    We have a regular staff meeting that was, for a long time, dominated by the boss, to the point where we didn’t accomplish any of the objectives that the meetings are for. One enterprising soul decided to start distributing an ‘agenda’ (complete with time table) for the meeting.

    10-10:15 Staff Issues
    10:15-10:45 Planning the big push
    etc etc

    This worked for about 2 meetings. Since then, the boss tends to say something like “I know we are supposed to start out talking about staff issues, but…” and rambles for 45 minutes about things that would be best addressed in one-on-one situations or some other venue.

    She is a very relational manager, and a very political person (ie she values loyalty). This is both a strength and a weakness–she is able to accomplish much within the organization by lining people up with her, to the benefit of our whole team. But at the same time, when people go against her, she can be vengeful. (Case in point: one of her assistant managers interviewed for another position in the company, without clearing it with her first. She basically fired the AM, which would have gone badly, except the AM got the position she was interviewing for.)

    Because of the political issues, nobody wants to step on her toes in these meetings–but we are all frustrated at the inability to get stuff done because she hijacks the agenda.

    What do you suggest?

  3. clobbered

    When the main meeting is over, excuse yourself by saying you have to go pee?

    Seriously, the fact that this woman left the room and everybody but you just SAT there, implies to me that other people are not quite as upset as you are about this. For some reason, they are not unhappy to sit there and watch the show – otherwise as soon you went, other people would have followed. People who are all wound up about something tend to follow the leader in these situations.

    So, like AaM said, best to couch this in personal terms with your manager – “I feel I am behind on my caseload this morning, is it okay if I leave after your announcements in the meeting this morning?”

    Then do it again. Then again. The fourth time, just leave without having asked first. Yeah I know, not ideal, but neither is the boss’s attitude.

  4. Hannah

    It really sounds like this is bothering the OP more than it is bothering anyone else. The OP seems to have this idea that no one can speak up at the meetings unless they are a supervisor. If that was the case, they would not pause for questions from the group. Weekly staff meetings are a good time to get the attention of a busy manager, so “Donna” probably saves up her questions for a time she knows she will have his attention. I think ducking out of the meeting is totally acceptable, but lighten up, because storming out in a huff is only going to make the OP look bad.

  5. Kyle

    The Boss may feel it’s important for everyone in the department to have an idea of what is going on with each-others work. I’d encourage the OP to bring the occasional idea or question of her own to the meeting. I bet your boss would welcome additional interaction!

  6. EngineerGirl

    It sounds to me like you are having a lot of problems with Donna, but are not willing to talk to her about it. Calling her questions the”Donna show” or saying her statements are “unmitigated arrogance” is really story telling. You really don’t know what is in her head and yet you’ve told yourself this whole set of stories about what she is thinking and feeling. I suggest you go talk to Donna and try to solve this problem. It is possible that she really doesn’t know the effect that she is having on people. Your goal is to talk to her and find out what she is thinking. She may be horrified that she is hurting people. But you haven’t given her the opportunity fix the situation. Instead you have judged her. Before you ever go to your boss you really need to find out what is really going on and work together to fix it.

  7. Kathy

    Regarding “Donna”:

    I appreciate the insight. Our office is definitely a unique group – small, 10 total. The others were bending over backwards trying to “just get along” with Donna long before I got there. She is what is politely referred to as a very “strong” personality. I have tried talking with her about the monologue, and so have others, with the same result: she immediately gets defensive and angry and says that she needs to ask the quetions. She spends a lot of time in the boss’ office asking questions during the week. Personally, I think she’s unqualified for the job. Anyone who has been on the job five years and still doesn’t “get-it” has a problem.
    I didn’t stomp off in a huff from the meeting, I just got up and left quietly. Afterwards I asked the others about their opinion of what she did, and they said they didn’t like it either, but they didn’t want to stir things up. “Donna” has a habit of picking verbal confrontations with people with whom she takes offense from time to time. She is quite loud and ugly when she does this. I’m one of the newer staff members, and I can’t believ this kind of stuff goes on in a professional office setting. Too me she’s just an office bully no one has stood up to yet. I refuse to stoop to the level of childish quarreling in the office she seems to like, so I’m trying to deal with it in a tactful, quiet, behind-the-scenes manner that defuses the power play and lets me – and my colleagues – get our work done without “drama queen dramatics.”
    I appreciate AaM’s and everyone’s advice. It sounds like the right approach to take.

    1. lorrwill

      Wow. Sounds like Donna has the boss and several other staff members by the balls, so to speak.

      They are afraid of one of her tirades so they put up with her. She does sound like she has serious issues and I fail to see why some of these comments are so pointedly in her favor.

      But then again, I have worked with people like “Donna”. I get how torturous is can be. When you are solutions oriented and client focused, sitting through a drama queen session is unacceptable. But to others, they get paid either way so perhaps they just don’t care.

      Best of luck. I hope this situation finds a better solution than everyone sitting around being unbillable.

  8. Jamie

    This really falls into the category of “there’s one in every office.”

    There really is. Sometimes it’s done out of a desire to dominate, and sometimes it’s just cluelessness – or just taking advantage of a captive audience to get questions answered (common in places with poor communication.)

    Personally, I would just excuse myself if I wasn’t needed and not make a big deal about it. If she’s doing it to dominate that defeats her purpose without confrontation, and if she’s really trying to get her questions answered she won’t care if you’re there or now.

    Allison is right, your manager should be dealing with this. Not even as a personnel issue, but a time management issue for meetings. Your boss’s boss is the one who should really be annoyed at the wasted time.

    I’ve run many a meeting where people try to get the minutia resolved and they get the same answer…that we can continue the discussion in my office after the meeting. I’m not the best public speaker in the world, but I have built a reputation for starting/ending meetings on time (or ending early). If people would take the time limits seriously and go in with an agenda there would be far less time wasted in offices everywhere.

  9. Mike C.

    I’m really confused here. The OP (Kathy, I take it?) actually said that when she reached the end of her rope she simply left.

    Given that she wasn’t penalized for this action and that her boss is a wimp, why not continue this?

    The fact that no one else left doesn’t mean a thing. She only left a meeting “early” once, and her coworkers may have simply not thought to do it before, or didn’t think it was worth any potential fallout. Next week you may have a few others join you.

    The thing here is that Donna is a workplace bully. It’s clear to me that this person has simply intimidated everyone else in the office, and you need to continue to take a tactful stand. Leave the meeting when you’ve gotten out of it what you need.

    If Donna doesn’t like it, tell her to take a long walk off a short pier. No one should have to worry about verbal confrontations with coworkers nor should it such actions take up 10% of the work week!

    Kathy, you’ve done the hardest thing already – you left the meeting. Continue to do so in the same quiet and polite manner, and don’t let bullies drag you down.

  10. Chris M.

    “I have also planned to tell my colleagues what I am doing and suggest they follow suit. ”

    Why, I ask? What do you care if others decide to stay? If I were in such position, I would follow AAM’s advice:

    ” Tell your boss that you’re finding that the Q&A portion of these meetings is almost always Donna-specific and ask if it’s okay for you to excuse yourself to get back to your case load when it becomes clear that the Q&A won’t be related to your work.”

    And leave others to make their own decision about how to handle the situation.

    1. fposte

      I think that’s a good point–that it’s one thing to save yourself the time and aggro, and it’s another to decide on behalf of the whole office that it has to be stopped. I mean, your colleagues have seen what you’re doing; if they want to follow suit, they will, and if they’re not following suit, they don’t really want to, whatever they agreeably say to you in private. I don’t see much point in campaigning with them–it’s recharacterizing the problem as one (Donna talks too much in meetings) you actually can’t solve, when the real problem (you don’t want to spend your time listening) has already been solved.

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  12. Lexy

    it may be useful to tell your manager how much time annually is wasted on this nonsense. If this 20 minute meeting actually last for 3 extra hours every week and there are 10 people there (9 of whom are not the one speaking) then annually there is:

    2.6 hours/week * 52 weeks * 9 people = 1,217 hours a year wasted

    That’s .585 FTE (assuming you use 2080 hours per FTE)

    If you tell your manager that over 1,000 hoursa year are being wasted on unproductive meeting time he/she may be more motivated to try to structure the meetings better.

    Or maybe not, I don’t know the person.

    1. Lexy

      Hmmm, I suppose I meant the 20 minute meeting is lasting for 3 hours TOTAL not EXTRA. But you see what I mean either way.

    2. Jamie

      I would love this – because I love metrics and think more people should use them as the awesome tools they are for continuous improvement.

      However, I would tread very lightly regarding handing a boss a spreadsheet detailing his/her inefficiency this far. Unfortunately in too many companies pointing out the obvious can get you branded as difficult – even if you’re just trying to correct a problem.

  13. Cassie

    @Hannah: I don’t get the feeling that the OP thinks only supervisors or managers can bring up questions in meetings. I think she is appalled at the fact that someone who is not a supervisor or a manager can dictate that everyone stay put until she has had a chance to pee. Honestly, I’d be bothered too. Because clearly a grown woman could not have anticipated the fact that she was going to be in a 20-minute meeting and used the restroom ahead of time. (Now it would be different for other staffers – who expected this meeting to only last for 20 mins, and instead went 3 hours).

    We have a Donna in our office too – it’s not so much that she has questions – many times, she just ends up complaining about having too much work to do. I kind of doubt the OP’s Donna really has questions. I think it’s more or less that Donna already knows the answer but just wants to be able to debate on policy/procedures.

    It kind of reminds me of in classes (probably mostly college courses and/or training courses) where there are always a few students who keep asking questions while everyone is anxious to leave.

    I think the reason why the other staffers don’t follow the OP out is possibly because they don’t care about getting back to work. It’s like our staff meetings – sure, everyone complains about being super busy, but when it comes down to it – they don’t mind spending some time just sitting there and chilling. I mean, then after the meeting, they can go back to complaining about being super busy esp now since they had to take time off to attend a meeting.

    I’ve taken notes at staff mtgs (not officially, just because I wanted to track how these staff mtgs were pointless) and a lot of the information discussed could have been distributed by email, or were only pertinent to select people. We haven’t had a meeting in a long time (maybe a year?) but I remember during our last meeting, we spent time discussing something that was relevant to 4 out of the 30 people there.

    To the OP – if you feel comfortable to, just go ahead and walk out. If your supervisor asks you later why you left early, just use the caseload as an excuse. I once left a meeting early (it usually lasts an hour – and I was there for about 30 minutes) because I had to go set up for a workshop. The manager leading the meeting didn’t confront me afterwards (she didn’t know I had something to do) and I asked others what else they discussed – as always, nothing important.

  14. Not surprised

    If you didn’t say 5 years, I’d say I worked with that woman 2 years ago and had the same boss. From my experience, your boss will do nothing and will blame you if you push him. I think your only option is to sit there quietly and let her ramble. Anything else and you will be labeled “insubordinate” and “not a team player.” Sorry but I’ve had a boss like this and I can’t be optimistic.

    1. Slaten

      ITA! And remember this bad job market won’t be around forever! When jobs start opening up these crappy managers/companies will be in for a loss of good employees. What goes around comes around!

  15. Charles

    Oh. My. Gawd!

    “Donna”? OP, are you by any chance in NYC? Several years ago I worked with “Donna” who used to do this exact same stuff! Wouldn’t that be funny if we worked with the same “Donna”!

    If it is the same person them I would like to add that part of her problem is that she MUST be the center of attention. In addition to the situation that you described I will tell about the time that I was in a one-on-one meeting with our mutual boss when she came bursting into his office, sat down on the floor, and then started to cry because her “blood sugar level” just dropped.

    When I mentioned to our boss afterward if this was something common I made the mistake of using the words “what’s wrong with Donna” his response was to chastize me for stating that there was something wrong with Donna. I was made into the bad guy. (I still think that there is something “wrong” with a grown person who sits in the middle of an office floor and cries because of an alleged health issue, instead of seeking medical treatment)

    So, OP, if this isn’t the same person I wish you the best of luck in dealing with this situation, if it IS the same person then God help you!

  16. lorrwill

    I recently excused not only myself, but a coworker from a meeting when the topic changed to something of no relevance to us. I cited workload and was thanked by the manager later.

    He said he appreciated my initiate and focus on the deadlines. It may help that is was his work we were doing, however.

  17. Anonymous

    Our Donna would try and prolong meetings by asking inane questions. The first time this happened with our new boss, she dismissed the room with an abrupt, “This question requires a 1-1 response, the rest are dismissed. Donna please stay behind. ”

    Donna fussed about being singled out to anyone that would listen. Although the new boss was tough, they had a clue. Donna was fired because she didn’t do much other than complain and run her mouth. It didn’t take long at all for our Donna to disappear, all it takes is a boss with a backbone.

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