update: dealing with a problematic member of a board games group

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day.

Remember the letter-writer who was dealing with a problematic member of a board games group? Here’s the update.

The update is a mixed one!

The bad news is that we ended up asking Q to leave the group last week. This was because the behaviours we had spoken to him about twice were repeating, and one member was planning to leave because of Q’s behaviour, and because of a conversation that I had with Q at the session before last.

Q spoke to me at the end of the session. He had apologised in person to the person involved in one of the incidents we had spoken to him about. In short, Q had made a joke which had come across as an insult. The person said that it was all fine (which could be for a lot of different reasons).

Q thought that due to this the second talk we had with him was totally unwarranted, but he said that he appreciated the reminders.

I sent Q a message last week. I was as kind as I could be, explained the reasons for us asking him to leave, and said that I could be wrong, but maybe he would be happier in a games group which was more serious and played heavier games. Q did not reply, but left the online groups we have for the games group and did not come to the next session.

The reason for sending a message rather than speaking to Q in person was that the only way to speak in person would be to do it at the end of a session. Given the layout of the hall, this would be hard to do without at least one person knowing, and I didn’t like the idea of Q sitting through a session with at least some people knowing that it was the last one.

I discussed it with Kelly, and we agreed that if people asked about Q not being there, we would give a short explanation but that we wouldn’t make a group wide announcement. So far reactions to the update have ranged from sympathy tinged with a comment that he was given two chances to a comment that he was given two clear, fair chances to improve.

It doesn’t feel great to have done it, but it was for the good of the whole group, and I do think that in the long run, Q will be happier in a different games group. We live in a smallish town and the board gaming community is small, so I don’t know if this will happen, realistically, but I hope that it will.

The games group is continuing to grow and thrive, and we have a good buffer built up now. Once we reach a certain amount, I’m hoping to use a local board game rental company (an independent company) at least once for the games group.

We had fourteen people at the session this week (which meant that we were in profit!) and everyone had a good time. I do think that our group had changed so much that Q wasn’t enjoying it as much as he did a couple of years ago, and the group was highly unlikely to change back.

Some of the commenters on the original post suggested considering changing the picking process for games, and we are working on making this quicker.

On a personal note, I also want to say thank you very much for all of the advice in this blog. I’m currently job hunting and using the advice and information here, and your suggested questions to ask at the end of an interview have impressed two interviewers so far!

The jobs I am applying for are to manage a team, as this is what I would like to do (having had experience in a previous job, and as I enjoy running the games group) and while asking Q to leave wasn’t the desired outcome, the process of managing this situation, based on the AAM advice, has been a really valuable experience for me.

I hope that you and all of your readers have a happy and healthy end of the year!

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. ThatGirl*

    I don’t know, it sounds like Q leaving was a pretty good outcome, all things considered. His wants and needs weren’t compatible with the group anymore, and it was better for him to part ways.

    1. NotBatman*

      Yes. As someone who used to be part of a group with its own Q — I thank you and all the group admins brave enough to tell people their behavior needs to change, and then to enforce consequences if the change doesn’t happen. It’s also been my experience that for every one person who speaks up about a group’s Q, there are five who keep silent or just don’t come back. So as awful as I’m sure it was to have all of those conversations, I bet there are dozens of current and future group members who will have a better time as a result of your courage.

  2. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

    Problematic members are pretty much par for the course for board game groups. Often it is solved by dissolving the group and reforming a new group without the problematic member(s).

    My theory is that socially awkward people are drawn to board game groups because there are rules to the interactions (at least, the rules of the games you are playing) and something to do other than make small talk.

      1. Tinkerbell*

        In a way, yes, but in my experience it’s usually a much bigger problem in geek-friendly spaces for a number of reasons. (More tolerant of those with poor social skills who wouldn’t have been accepted elsewhere, the whole group are more likely to been the victim than the bully in childhood and go too far the other direction in trying to avoid being the bad guy, generally more likely to be male-heavy environments where misogyny is tolerated at higher levels so there’s resistance toward someone who is “just” rude to women, a strong disinclination to exclude anyone, etc). There are some excellent essays online on “the geek fallacy” which touch on these in greater detail :-)

        1. ferrina*

          Agree, geek-friendly spaces tend to have a slightly different breed of social problems. My mind also leapt to the geek social fallacies.

            1. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

              I was going to find the same link. I can’t say that I have encountered that exact set of fallacies, however, I have definitely found lots of socially awkward and occasionally offensive people as part of board game groups and at gaming cons.

          1. Cool Tina, Train Conductress*

            The geek social fallacies are real, but there’s no “kind” of group that readily holds men accountable. Less socially-awkward groups just tend to have more socially adept jerks–jerks who knows to not be jerks to EVERYONE, so they have people to defend and excuse them.

    1. Andy*

      A well-moderated group does not have an obligation to tolerate problematic behavior (which is NOT the same as “awkward” behavior), whether it’s a board game group or any other kind.

      Yes, it’s common, but that doesn’t mean it’s ok for the leaders to throw up their hands and do nothing.

      1. Tinkerbell*

        Unfortunately, some people are extremely adept at riding the line between awkward and unforgivable, and at using legitimate things like ASD and ADHD as excuses for why they shouldn’t be held to the same standard of behavior as everyone else :-/

        1. Echo*

          As someone who’s neurodivergent in a way that makes social skills difficult for me: if someone said “you need to change X, Y, and Z behaviors to stay in the group” that would be AMAZING. I almost never get direct feedback on my social skills and would easily be able to apply rules as long as they’re specific. (I have been given feedback like “your tone is condescending” and “you talk about yourself too much” which isn’t helpful because it’s not specific enough.)

          1. Oh No, A Boat*

            It sounds like people have been telling you want not to do instead of what TO do! It is so frustrating when you get feedback like that because its like, “…great, now what??”. For those of you reading Echo’s comment and my response, better feedback involves action! I once had someone tell me “You should ask other people questions about themselves and ask follow-up questions about their responses instead of turning every conversation to a story about yourself.” SO HELPFUL! Before that, I’d had similar feedback to you, Echo: people telling me I talk about myself too much. That was the first time someone had given me direction and actionable information and it was, while obvious to most people, life changing for me.

            1. Amanha*

              I love this specificity! That is so much more helpful and I’m glad it had such a positive impact on you – and now it had a positive impact on me, too, because I’ll remember it for future feedback-giving :)

          2. Velociraptor Attack*

            That feedback seems pretty specific to me and if I gave it, I would feel like I was being direct so can you share what you would find to be specific?

            1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

              “Change x behavior” is only a start. Direct feedback would include examples of acceptable behavior so we know what to change TO. Basically, the way we talk to 3-year-olds, which is not condescending but rather transparent and specific.

            2. Echo*

              Since I have never made my tone condescending on purpose, I don’t know when I’m being condescending. I would need a specific example of something that I did wrong and how to do it differently in the future. Same with “talk about myself too much” – how much is “not too much”?

              1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

                There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that. It’s fine to use your experience to illustrate a point. For example you’re talking about teapots, and someone will say that tea tastes nicer when it’s been steeped in a porcelain teapot. Well you can say that porcelain is all very well but you already have three porcelain teapots without lids because you broke them, and now you’ll only use pewter.
                If someone asks how you manage to keep breaking lids, or whether you can taste the difference between porcelain and pewter when you drink the tea, of course you answer the question, but don’t then go off another tangent, direct a question back, asking them how they manage not to break lids or what they don’t like about pewter teapots.
                If I had to make a rule I’d say no more than one (short) anecdote about yourself, before you redirect the conversation to show an interest in the other person. And if you’re asked about a hobby that you’re really enthusiastic about, keep an eye on whether the person you’re talking to is still engaging with you or looking for a way to escape!

                1. Echo*

                  Oops, I think my social issues got in the way here too. I was giving examples of why the feedback didn’t work for me, not asking for advice. I agree with you – it’s feedback I could only react to from someone who observed my behaviors and pointed out specific behaviors that were a problem and specific ways I could redirect.

        2. VaguelySpecific*

          Exactly. Having any of those conditions does not give someone carte Blanche to behave like an ass.

      2. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

        I never said it was acceptable, just that it was common. To the extent that good behavior can be rules lawyered, I think that those who seek out these structured social settings in good faith can follow the rules and be successful.

    2. Tired of Working*

      It doesn’t appear that Q was a fan of following the rules, because he would leave games in a huff if he was losing. I don’t know of any game that has the rule “If you see that you are losing, you are allowed to quit.” It’s just something that sore losers do.

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        And this is exactly why the Euro-game model is such a good one: those games are ideally designed so that you don’t know who is winning or losing until the end. It lets all players stay engaged and having fun (unlike in the best example ever of the opposite, which would be the board game called Monopoly).

        1. Giant Kitty*

          I am in my mid fifties and have played Monopoly exactly ONCE. In middle school, when I ended up overturning the board in a fit of both boredom and rage. This was not even remotely a typical behavior for me (I was shy, quiet, and blended into the wallpaper) which just goes to show what an annoying game it is.

      2. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

        There are a small handful of games with a rule “if nobody notices you cheating, it’s allowed.” but I avoid those games.

    3. Portia*

      And every book club has a member who spins off endlessly on things that aren’t in the text (“But how do we KNOW it wasn’t really all a dream?”), and every political group has a belligerent, ideologically purer-than-thou True Believer (“How can you POSSIBLY think that?!!”), and every hobby group has a self-appointed critic (“But I’m just being HONEST!”) and someone else who falls apart when their work is criticized. And every group of every kind has at least one bossy know-it-all.

      Humans are gonna human. More’s the pity, sometimes.

      1. Poppy*

        That book club sounds like my high school English teacher! If you didn’t come up with the same bizarre theory as to why an author used some particular imagery you would get no higher than a C. My Honors English grades went from A’s every year to a C+ for that one. I declined to take AP English with her. She probably would love being a book club where she could make up fantastical things that didn’t actually happen.

        1. Portia*

          Hah — I had a professor like that. She’d ask “What do you think?” but she meant “Can you guess what I think?”

        2. BubbleTea*

          My religious studies teacher graded us on our beliefs. My Catholic friend always got high grades. My Wiccan friend always got very low ones. My atheist friend and I (agnostic at the time) were middle of the pack. We tested it once by all giving the exact same answers, and yup – different grades.

  3. tg33*

    The problem is that even if Q apologises to the person he insulted, everyone else who heard the ‘joke’ is affected too, did he apologise to them? Not even an apology can unsay the ‘joke’.

  4. Frank*

    I’m a bit confused by the amount of chances given Q. It sounds like he was a horrible fit for the group. He wanted to be patronizing, argumentative, petulant and rude. Why not cut him off sooner with the reason that this isn’t a group for that type of behavior?

    Or if you didn’t want to address the many reasons why he outstayed his welcome, just tell him you dissolved the group and meet someplace else? It’s sketchy and childish, but sounds like something he would do and understand.

    1. I should really pick a name*

      It sounds like Q was given several chances because he were given some consideration for the fact that the way the group was being handled was changing significantly. Basically, give him a chance to adjust to the fact that behaviours which were previously accepted were no longer acceptable.

    2. Don*

      Seems utterly consistent with “broken stair” situations and the reluctance to jettison long-standing/”founding” members of an organization to me.

      1. Kelly L.*

        For the record–and this isn’t aimed at you personally, this is just a common misconception–a broken stair isn’t just a jerk, but refers to someone who’s a rapist or sexual harasser. It does sound like a Geek Social Fallacy, though.

        1. Maybe.*

          The wiki article says that Pervocracy did intend for the term to be used more broadly than sexual misconduct, though it hasn’t caught on as much in other contexts. Either way, it seems like it fits here and doesn’t need policing?

        2. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

          A lot of us got the term from Capt Awkward, who uses it more broadly: any person whose behavior is extremely unwelcome, but who is never confronted and everyone just works around them (learning to jump over the broken stair, rather than repairing it).

        3. Myrin*

          On the contrary, Don is using it exactly right!

          The term was coined on Cliff Pervocracy’s blog and while the specific example/story he started the post in question with did indeed feature a rapist, he very explicitly said that the same phenomenon happens in all parts of life:

          “This isn’t just about sex. Just about every workplace has that one person who doesn’t do their job, but everyone’s grown accustomed to picking up their slack. A lot of social groups and families have that one person. The person whose tip you quietly add a couple bucks to. (Maybe more than a couple, after how they talked to the server.)” and “Everyone who says “I don’t like it either, but that’s the way things are,” and makes no move to question the way things are, is jumping over a missing stair somewhere.”

          The term has, from the beginning, been about situations exactly like the one described in this letter.

    3. Tesuji*

      Groups focused on non-mainstream hobbies are prone to the Geek Social Fallacies.

      That’s always been true (the article I just linked to is 20 years old), but it’s even more true these days, with the greater awareness of neuroatypicality and the ability to weaponize claims of ableism.

    4. Beebis*

      I remember reading this originally and feeling like LW was being entirely too charitable to someone that clearly didn’t mesh with the group and didn’t seem to want to. Not surprised to see that it ended like this.

    5. Kella*

      I think it’s ethical and compassionate to have at least one conversation where you lay out the new expectations for the group, since there was a change in leadership, and give the explicit feedback that he was not meeting those expectations. If that behavior had been considered acceptable prior to that leadership change, it would be unfair to blindside him by being kicked out of the group with no warning.

      The reason for the second chance sounds like it came from the fact that he *did* improve significantly after the first conversation, but then his habits slipped back in. That demonstrated that he was capable of better behavior and wanted to improve.

      I’m not sure why you would opt for the sketchy and childish alternative when there was a mature, and ethical one to pursue.

    6. Hen in a Windstorm*

      The two other people who commented on it both noted he “had 2 chances”. Obviously, they wanted to give the rest of the members a sense of fairness, *even though* those same people were being really annoyed by Q. It made it transparent to everyone else that they clearly communicated the problems and gave him a chance to fix them.

      Which, btw, is slower, but at least direct. It’s strange to me that you think being passive-aggressive and pretending you dissolved the group is somehow a better approach.

      1. Jessen*

        I think this part is honestly really important. It’s not just that it’s giving him extra chances; it communicates to other people that they’ll have a chance to change their behavior if they make a mistake. But also that the rules are there and will be enforced. It’s important to be able to be clear that he wasn’t just suddenly kicked out because the admins didn’t like him or something.

    7. An Australian In London (currently in London)*

      Others have already referenced the Geek Social Fallacies.

      It is to the point of trope or stereotype that those who have experienced a lot of shunning and Othering for being geeks now prioritize harmony and inclusiveness above all else. The thinking is that they have all themselves been so excluded that to now exclude someone from the group is Literally The Worst Thing They Could Do.

      Sometimes this leads to people behaving badly without the intention to behave badly. Sometimes it leads to predators quickly figuring out that they will flourish there because they will never be called on anything.

      I’ve personally seen it in groups for tabletop role-playing games, board games, kink, polyamory, theatre improv, singing, and (memorably) one group where all of the above activities were in scope. Many of these were before the GSFs were published.

      In all cases, harmony was prized above all else. In one case someone who had openly committed a sexual assault against another group member – witnessed by many! – was allowed to remain in the group because to kick them out (let alone involve law enforcement) would be to “deny them their opportunity for redemption”. That’s when I stopped ever going to any of these geek groups unless they had a well-publicized safety policy and I knew people who would vouch that the policy had teeth and was effectively enforced.

    8. Danish*

      I think part of it is that, if I’m reading correctly, Q was around from the beginning of the group and LW was not – I can see feeling like you had to give someone a few extra chances in that scenario, even if LW had also always been there. It’s hard, psychologically, to boot the original members, even if they’re being annoying.

    9. Frank*

      Thanks for all the clarity. I’ve never read Geek Social Fallacies, but now I’m curious to read it! To answer Hen and Kella, I personally wouldn’t opt for passive aggressiveness or immaturity as you implied, just a question I asked. I have been wearing the shoes of “other” my entire life in my own family, so I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end. I wouldn’t wish that behavior on anybody!

    10. Cool Tina, Train Conductress*

      Most people are relatively conflict averse and don’t want to be the person to step up and tell someone “no.”

      People always drag out the Geek Social Fallacies
      whenever there are games involved but this happens in all settings everywhere. Especially when it’s a man making women uncomfortable, or some other unbalanced societal power dynamic.

  5. me*

    Q reminds me very much of a person we have gamed with in the past who we recently learned is autistic and has other neurodivergence issues such as ODD and RSD. That person for the past year has been going to therapy, in part to address the social behavior nuances that they don’t understand and struggle with, which has finally begun to make a marked difference in their behavior at group over the past few months. We still see behaviors appear like competitiveness, missing social cues, being loud, making jokes that are more hurtful than funny, and reacting negatively to jokes made at their expense – but we have better context for it now, and this person has talked to the group leaders and taken on board our recommendation to ask their therapist for ways to communicate better. It is of course too late for some players that were run off by negative interactions with our member, but hopefully in future things will continue to improve. I am not trying to armchair diagnose Q as ND but I sincerely hope that whatever is going on with them, there are resources available to them that they can use to help them change and maybe one day come back to the gaming group as a productive player.

  6. Happy Little Cog*

    Sounds like everyone is happier this way. Even though the group dynamic shifted, it clearly meant enough to Q to try to alter their behavior when asked. I hope that OP’s group runs more smoothly, and that Q finds a group better suited to them.
    Honestly, this site is a great resource for a lot of things that don’t pertain directly to jobs. You could easily call it Advice for Navigating Tricky Social Situations, Some of Which Have Specific Rules (or, you know, not so easily). I’ve definitely applied AAM advice to other parts of my life, and have been thinking about adding Iranian Yogurt Checks to my thought process when a problem arises.

  7. Fuseboy*

    Asking him to leave is bad news? That’s great news! The letter-writer described this guy as rude and irascible. The only bad news here is he was given so many undeserved chances to improve his behavior. It’s not a requirement to coach our fellow humans on how not to be toxic before ousting them from social situations.

    1. ferrina*

      Yeah, I think this is a good news letter- LW was able to tell a problematic person to leave. She did right by him by giving him feedback and a chance to change, then she did right by everyone else by holding him to consequences when he didn’t change (or rather, only changed very temporarily).

  8. Cthandhs*

    Good job navigating this OP. The way you did it is excellent not only because it’s a good way to handle a problem participant, but because it shows the other group attendees that if they mess up they will get a chance to right their behavior. This kind of thing needs to not just be fair, but also needs to be seen as a fair process to everybody in the group. I know some people wonder about giving Q a couple chances, but if group members see Q removed without understanding the history behind it, they can become worried that they could arbitrarily be removed and become resistant to *any* member’s removal. I’ve seen this kill social groups, it gets to be a staircase of missing stairs.

  9. OP*

    Hello :)

    OP here!

    I’ve read through all the comments, ( thank you!), and will reply in summary here. :)

    Yes, the approach was agreed on was two discussions, so as to demonstrate to other members that the system used was fair, and to give Q a fair chance, given that the group has changed so much since it started. The fact that there was an improvement initially was also a factor.

    Not much else has changed since I wrote in. Only three people asked where Q was, ( unusual in itself – if it were anyone else who didn’t come for a while, most of us would wonder why), and when the situation was briefly explained, the responses were sympathetic but also that it was a fair decision.

    Q does seem to have joined another games group, ( the games group that his other group quietly defected to so as to restart their group without him, so that should be interesting…), so hopefully they will go to those sessions and get something out of them.

    The atmosphere at our group is much, much more relaxed now, and people are visibly happier and calmer. People aren’t skipping low number sessions any more, and choosing games is no longer a diplomatic exercise. :)

    We had our Christmas session last week, with a Secret Santa, a Bring and Share buffet and Christmas tunes on, and it was really lovely. There were lots of comments about how much people are enjoying the group and how they’re looking forward to next year’s sessions. :)

    We also have enough in the surplus to give everyone a free session in January, so yay! :)

    I’m still job hunting, but the hunt continues. :)

    Thank you for this site, Allison, and Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year as appropriate to everyone! :)

  10. Michelle Smith*

    If it makes you feel any better about needing to dismiss Q from the only game (pun not intended) in town, it is $20 (half that on sale) for them to buy Tabletop Simulator and play pretty much any board game on the planet virtually with people. The best part is that the platform only has text chat, not audio, so they don’t have to engage with other people at all if they don’t want to participate in voice comms. They can have a place to play games in quiet, and they won’t be ruining the experience for other people in your group going forward. Could be a win-win.

  11. allathian*

    Lovely to hear that removing Q from the group seems to have worked out for everyone, including him.

    Happy gaming!

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