my coworker keeps hijacking our meetings

A reader writes:

I am a department head at a small financial firm. Recently I began hosting weekly meetings for our 25-person business team, which comprises other department heads and their teams. For the first couple of weeks, things were going smoothly, but recently one department head has been hijacking every meeting.

He shows up late and interrupts people’s presentations to interject his own thoughts, opinions, and agendas. One of his team members was presenting last week, and he butted in and droned on for several minutes. These are only supposed to be five-minute presentations and are an opportunity for all of our team members to be heard, not just the outspoken department heads. I can see people slumping in their chairs and disengaging every time he pipes up.

To top things off, this week at the end of the meeting while I was dismissing everyone and thanking them for their time and attention, he interrupted me midsentence and stopped everyone from leaving to make an announcement. The announcement was directed toward his team of four and wasn’t even relevant to the vast majority of people in the room.

He is my peer, not my subordinate. How do I address this with him? Do I speak to him privately or just shut it down midmeeting? I don’t want there to be tension that will make everyone in the meeting uncomfortable, but he is being too disruptive to ignore. These meetings are supposed to be fun and energizing and he is sucking the life out of them.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 69 comments… read them below }

  1. Dave*

    Timed meeting agenda’s are a wonderful tool for keeping the meeting on track and setting out expectations of how long each section should take.

    1. irene adler*

      And something one can refer to if someone goes off track.
      **It’s 9:30,John, and time for those 5 minute presentations to begin. So let’s move on to those.**

  2. Trout 'Waver*

    To explicitly reiterate what Alison said: If you call a meeting, you are responsible for making sure it goes smoothly. That includes providing an agenda, starting on time, sticking on track, shutting down interruptions and boors, and concluding on time. This is not optional. It on you.

    1. EPLawyer*

      x1000. I have one of those in my Lions Club who wants to talk about what he wants to talk about when he wants to talk. Previous business meetings would run to an hour and half because no one would shut him down. He always cited “Past President’s Privilege.” He was president ONCE, 20 years ago and never lets anyone forget it. Now that I am president this year, when he starts to go off agenda, I shut him down with a “we will get to that on the agenda later (and we do)” or “We already covered that” if he joins the Zoom meeting late. Our meetings are clocking in at 45 minutes now.

      1. Pennyworth*

        You sound like the President of our local Pony Club when I was a kid – he knew nothing about horses (his son was a rider) but he ran the committee meetings like his own business meetings. All diversions and digressions were firmly put off to the “Any Other Business” agenda item at the bottom of the list. I still use him as a benchmark. I’m sure your Lions Club is very grateful for your presidency.

    2. Anonymous at a University*

      Yes. I sit on a faculty committee where the chair has been with this university for 15 years and working in universities altogether for 40, and he STILL doesn’t get this. He lets people go on on their own private tangents that have nothing to do with the topic of the meeting, are only slightly connected, or are nuts (no, we can’t “send a strongly-worded letter” to the journal that didn’t publish your article because we are working on issues of equity in our own university and you’re convinced they didn’t publish your article because you’re a woman). Even by ZOOM the meetings just go on and on and people disengage or have to leave for real or made-up commitments. I think the chair feels that he can’t cut people short because we do talk about issues of equity and he’s a white guy (although he’s disabled and gay), but setting an agenda and asking people to follow up by e-mail later if they exceed the time limit is not being bigoted, it’s being realistic.

    3. Mr. Obstinate*

      On the one hand this makes sense as a way of automatically assigning responsibility, but what do you do when your bosses tell you to call a meeting, then tell you to delay starting the meeting by a few minutes to wait for them, then arrive at the meeting and start derailing the agenda, etc.? In that case it’s not fair for the bosses to blame you afterwards for failing your duties of keeping the meeting on track.

        1. Metadata minion*

          Yeah, I would treat that more as if your boss had just asked you to *schedule* the meeting. (It sounds like this is not how the boss is framing it, but you can’t really do much in that situation with an unreasonable boss, so I’d just wash my hands of meeting-leading at that point).

    4. TootsNYC*

      one of my failures I still feel ashamed of is letting some asshole hijack a PTA meeting when I was president. It’s been almost two; I still feel embarrassed by it.

      1. Mami21*

        Hey, you learned from the experience, don’t beat yourself up by feeling stuck in the face of someone else’s lack of ability to read the room! It’s not easy to just cut people off, especially when you’ve been taught that interrupting is rude.

  3. Butterfly Counter*

    My main issue with the first solution is the fact that he shows up late, so he’s not getting the benefit of the announcements, agenda, time limits, etc., which makes it almost necessary to skip to solutions 2 and 3. However, interruptions and pulling him aside might seem jarring to this person coming from a peer and “without warning,” as the warnings were posed at the beginning of the meetings he missed.

    I have the same issue with teaching university classes. If I state what my policies for late attendance right at the beginning of class, the people who most needed to hear it aren’t there.

    1. Anonymous Capybara*

      Maybe emailing the agenda and meeting expectations prior to the start of the meeting would help? You would also save time at the start of the meeting reiterating the agenda since everyone would have gotten it in advance.

      1. Threeve*

        Most platforms will also let you attach it to the meeting itself as a document, or you can paste it as the first item in the chat.

    2. Anonymous Capybara*

      Also, specifically with your university classes — in my experience, that information is all included in the syllabus and then reiterated orally on the first day. Again, having stuff like this in writing that people can refer to only builds your case when someone tries flouting the rules due to “ignorance.”

    3. AthenaC*

      I figured the benefit of #1 is that you set the expectation for everyone else so they aren’t surprised and “tense” when the OP maintains control of the meeting by interrupting. She did say she was worried about that.

      On a related note – OP, you’re overthinking the fact that this individual is your peer. If it’s your meeting, you’re in charge, even if the attendees technically outrank you. You absolutely have standing to interrupt and redirect.

      1. Marthooh*

        Two good points. Making sure everyone else is prepared for the new rules and making it clear that you own the meeting will give you a strong moral advantage against the interrupter.

      2. Washi*

        Like OP, I’m definitely one to overthink interrupting someone to get a meeting back on track, especially if it’s a peer who I know will bristle at it!

        Here are some things I’ve found helpful:
        – Interrupt not just when time is up, but with time warnings as well. “Fergus, just fyi we’re going to need to move on in 1 minute so we can stay on track.” “Fergus, so sorry to interrupt, but we only have 5 minutes left and I want to make sure we get to everyone. Sarah, what do you think?”
        – Literally set a timer “I know we could spend all day discussing this so I’m going to set a 10 minute timer so I don’t forget to move us along!”
        – Appoint a timekeeper, maybe rotating the role each meeting. It feels less person if someone was specifically tasked to cut people off!

    4. Khatul Madame*

      Create ground rules for meetings and include them in the meeting slides. For every meeting.
      Add an agenda item for “Any Other Business” and every time the boor pipes up with unrelated talk, defer to AOB.

    5. Artemesia*

      yeah and it is clearly on the syllabus as well which people like that don’t read. Consider making those announcements at the END of the first class and perhaps in one class Email. And then enforce.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        No you make the announcement at the beginning which is logical, and doesn’t penalise those who can’t wait to the end of a meeting that’s run over time.
        Those who miss the beginning are at fault. If they are then surprised to be interrupted, you can say sweetly “sorry to interrupt, as those who were there at the beginning are aware, we’re on a tight schedule here so we need to keep on topic.” That underlines the fact that he should have been on time so he’d know not to ramble.
        With Zoom meetings you can pin up the rules of the meeting, in actual meetings you can pass round a paper summarising them. Either way, it’s then on latecomers to read it to get up to speed before weighing in on the meeting. Boors like OP’s peer won’t bother and will just have to own being given a dressing-down in public when they disregard the rules.

  4. That Girl from Quinn's House*

    Ah this is an old letter from the archives!

    I saw the LW was the host and was wondering why they weren’t just muting him when he talks out of turn, but this is from the Old Days when we were allowed to see people in person.

    1. Anonymous Capybara*

      Yes, most or all of the Inc. and The Cut posts are old letters from the archives! I actually got excited when I saw this one because it’s the first time I recognized it lol

    2. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I thought the same thing! Mute all mics except the designated speaker and tell everyone to put questions or comments in the chat, and then I went back to make sure this was a video meeting and realized it’s probably an in-person.

    3. Threeve*

      Ha, it didn’t even occur to me that it wasn’t online! It’s hard to remember that we used to do things face to face.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        Seriously, although I would prefer that it wasn’t needed, I am totally OK with having to submit questions via chat and virtually raise my hand if it keeps THAT PERSON from derailing the meeting multiple times.

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, me too. And I absolutely love the ability to mute a boor. Although luckily I don’t have to chair meetings with boors.

  5. CatPerson*

    I have to say that my first thought was why do you need to host 25 person team meetings on a weekly basis! Especially since it is consists of several full teams! Shouldn’t the department heads get together every couple of weeks and then share what’s relevant with their respective teams? That’s a lot of people to have to get together every week.

    1. SomebodyElse*

      This is where I was going. I’m guessing with that many people in different departments the benefit to most attendees is pretty minimal.

      I’m usually one who doesn’t like to comment outside of the original question, but without any other context I’d be looking to see if this is just a not-optimal meeting to begin with.

    2. Mr. Tyzik*

      I’m in financial services and it can happen. Not sure if it is unique to the industry, but it seems like there are always new rules and trainings that we have to take and we learn about those with context in team meetings. My total team of 30 meets weekly to discuss new things and learn from each other.

      Delivery teams may be doing a Scrum of Scrum kind of meeting where the Scrum Masters, Tech Leads, and Engineers who do the work from many teams come together to talk about their work and where it intersects and adjust plans as needed. That could be what’s going on here.

      It could also be a shared Backlog Refinement gone awry. Department heads can get together and pass along messages, yet context and discussion can be important regarding emails and those passed along messages.

      1. SomebodyElse*

        I think that may be the key… is it information that the full team needs. Most times I’ve seen that it turns into people talking about what is important to them and isn’t fully relevant to the rest.

        I have 3 small teams and it’s only about once or twice a year there is something I have that is relevant to all 3 teams enough to have a full meeting about.

        To not be ‘that person’ I agree with the advice given and would only add that maybe a 1:1 discussion with the guy could also work.

        “Hiya Fergus, Need your help with something… I’m trying to accomplish X, Y, and Z with our weekly meeting. I noticed that you have a lot of questions during the presentations. Any chance I can get you to hold them to the end? I’m also trying to keep the agenda pretty rigid and relevant to the group, so I’m going to ask that if you have announcements for your team that you save them for a different time. I appreciate your assistance kthxbye”

    3. Half-Caf Latte*

      Yes! The red flag for me was these meetings are supposed to be “fun”!

      A weekly meeting with no clear point other than fun sounds…. well, not fun.

  6. Guacamole Bob*

    Alison’s point that other people in the meeting will be glad to see you trying to take control of the meeting back, setting expectations, etc. A meeting where someone has to awkwardly interrupt the annoying person to keep things on track is a thousand times better than one in which everyone sits around uncomfortably while the annoying person does their thing totally unchecked.

  7. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    I’ll add a #3a on that last one — tell him if he has announcements or things to cover with his own team, he needs to do so in his own separate meeting. He’s hijacking this one because it conveniently allows him to double dip at your expense. His pattern of interrupting seems to focus on his own team and that’s probably because he either wants to make a performance of managing, or he isn’t keeping up with his own people and has no idea what they’re working on.

    1. irene adler*

      Not disagreeing here.
      He’s probably taking advantage as this is probably one of the few opportunities he has to find all of his team members together at one time/place.
      They know what a boor he is; hence they try to avoid meetings with him whenever possible.

    2. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      This. I’d tell my team that I understand if they can’t stay and I’ll pass on any information that Giant Jackass is going to share with them, but please disconnect and get to your current priority.

  8. George*

    If these are teleconference meetings, you can probably mute everyone as a default and just un-mute speakers and at the end for questions…

    I’m going to mute everyone on entry to this meeting because of ‘background noise’. I’ll un-mute speakers as we go.

    1. Heidi*

      When I’m hosting the zoom meeting, I ask everyone to comment only in the chat while the speaker is presenting. After the presentation, I open up the mikes for verbal questions. Usually by then a few questions have popped up in the chat, so the presenter has something to start with. It’s worked pretty well for preventing interruptions.

  9. Seal*

    One of my favorite stories about subtly training people to show up at meetings on time has to do with a new university librarian at previous job. Her predecessor was pretty lax about meetings and agendas and people were in the habit of wandering in late if they showed up at all. During the new UL’s first few weeks she held an all-staff meeting for our particular library and actually started the meeting exactly on time. The room was mostly packed, but being good Midwesterners, most people sat in the back of the room. So the half-dozen or so people that showed up late had to do the walk of shame to the only open seats, which happened to be in the front row right under the new UL’s nose. She never stopped talking or verbally acknowledged the late-comers, but she did give them a quick and slightly disapproving glance as they walked by. No one was EVER late to a meeting again.

    1. Anonymous at a University*

      That’s amazing!

      I was in graduate school and was in one class where a classmate showed up late every day for a week, started talking as she came in (interrupting the professor), and would stand sighing by the seat she wanted until someone moved for her. Monday of the next week, the professor came in and locked the door when class started. It was one of the rare classrooms that didn’t have a door in the window, so when the classmate showed up (30 minutes late) and started knocking, you couldn’t see who it was. One of the other student stood up, the professor asked where she was going, and she said, “I’m going to let “Kelly” in, she’s knocking.” He said, “I don’t hear anything.” After a few minutes the knocking stopped, and we went on with the class.

      That person was never late again.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I had that happen to me in Undergrad (but senior level classes). It was glorious for those of us who had been annoyed by “Princess Latey” because when she pulled her stunt the dean was there and watched her melt-down in silence I observed for a few mins before making her presence known and smacking “Princess Latey” down.

    2. Jackalope*

      Exception that proves the rule perhaps: I had a class for Hobby that I took regularly in the Before Times that I was often late to. I was one of the furthest commuters and for a long time (a year or two?) the very soonest I could make it was 7:03 for a 7:00 class. I told them up front what was happening so they’d know why I was ALWAYS late but they’d still make a point of saying heartily, “Hi, Jackalope!!” when I’d actually arrive, probably for this same reason. (To be fair, the teachers changed regularly so they may not all have know why I was late.) I got pretty immune to it, so even when I was late for other reasons that were my own fault, when they did that I would just wave hello cheerfully to the whole class and say something like, “Hi, great to see everyone!” Eventually they gave up and just accepted that I’d be late (and then later still the class changed to 7:15 or so and it was no longer an issue), but it was kind of funny in retrospect.

  10. I edit everything*

    I have a vague memory that there was an update to this one, but it’s not linked, so maybe not, or maybe the LW commented on the original. Does anyone else remember such a thing?

    1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      I remember a letter like this, pre COVID, live in the office. Monthly meetings where office boor did the same thing. After a letter Alison and moral and practical commentariat, OP, who’d inherited this event, took control of the situation.
      The follow up letter included a mention about one staff member blurting “you’d know that if you’d been here on time” after attempts to gain control through talking over people failed. Office Boor turned to sulking and then skipping the meetings for a bit, I believe.

  11. Phony Genius*

    I hope the writer was able to address this because I’d like to hear about the llama-gram initiative.

  12. Formerly Ella Vader*

    Noting this part,
    Recently I began hosting weekly meetings for our 25-person business team, which comprises other department heads and their teams. For the first couple of weeks, things were going smoothly, but recently one department head has been hijacking every meeting.

    I’m wondering if some of this behaviour from the rude peer might be as a threatened response to the OP’s initiative. The OP came up with the idea, invited all the teams, is getting ongoing positive feedback, and is getting an ongoing platform to impress other teams. The RP wants in on the action. They want all the other teams to see that they are competent and assertive too. Anything the OP does to attempt to manage the meetings better is going to frustrate that goal. Since the OP isn’t RP’s boss and because the meetings were OP’s idea, I think that unless OP gets an explicit mandate from above and RP knows it, RP isn’t likely to fall into line.

    Do I have a solution? Not one I like. I do agree with all Alison’s points about how to take control of the meetings starting now, but I think RP will still be a problem with the current meeting leadership. If OP and/or management proposes a schedule of meetings and invites or assigns different people to take the lead (planning content, chairing meeting), that might let RP run some bad meetings and OP run some better ones. Or OP could decide just to run meetings for her own group now.

    I also wanted to comment that “ fun and energizing ” is a very high bar for meeting results. Maybe “rewarding” or “productive”? But if you think they started off well and you want some support, create a quick anon survey for the attendees.
    – These meetings are a good use of my time.
    – I learned something new in this this week’s meeting.
    – I’d like to hear about the following topics in future meetings.

    1. Mommy MD*

      No work meetings are fun lol. But they can be energizing. Rarely. On my days off if there is a call in meeting I can barely stand to hear the voices of colleagues I like and respect.

    2. Longtime Lurker*

      I was going to say something along the same lines. If RP was more …focused, then it might make sense for both managers to utilize this one shared meeting. But RP would still be obligated to show up on time and facilitate a productive meeting rather than meandering in and taking the agenda off-topic.

  13. Mommy MD*

    Unfortunately with this blow hard I’m betting it will progress to option 3. But this is excellent advice on how to curtail those who take over meetings.

  14. 30 Years in the Biz*

    I’m biased because of recent experience, but I’m seeing some signs of narcissism in this guy’s actions. I’d be careful about using #3 and confronting behavior like this. If he’s truly a narcissist, he’ll consider the person confronting him an enemy and might start trying to undermine them. I’d suggest first looking for other signs of narcissism (need for admiration, inability to handle criticism, charming/persuasive, taking credit for other’s work, showing they feel they’re entitled) at work before using #3.

  15. J.B.*

    Oh man, I used to have to run meetings involving my superiors who alllll liked to talk and get very far off the point. It was a long time to improve the situation, and I shouldn’t have been in that position to begin with given the power dynamics. (Later one of those bosses would trap his employees in meetings and go on at length about his political opinions. Messed up much?) Having an advance agenda helps, also calling out the problem behavior in the moment – we’ve been on this side topic for 20 minutes and we need to move on met with an ugly reaction in the short term but the embarrassment did help in the long term.

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