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How NOT to deal with dysfunctional behavior

young happy people in a team

Let's face it. Most teams look and feel nothing like the photo shown above. Teams are made up of real people, with all their hang-ups, anxieties, moods, and history with others on the team. And that is what makes people interesting! Whether we are an external facilitator or part of the team, we have to work with who we have. But what should we do when we encounter behavior that is dysfunctional?

People who are actively disengaged from the meeting. Outright hostility. Repeatedly interrupting others. Taking up too much air time. Dominating the discussion. Ignoring instructions. Having side-bar conversations. Eye-rolling. These behaviors can undermine safety and trust in the room, and if this happens the meeting can derail quickly. As a facilitator, it's critical to address them as they arise.

There has been a lot written about this topic already (for example, see Dealing with Disrupters by Sarah J. Read) , but here are some mistakes I have made in the past that I learned the hard way that we should avoid.

DON'T [The bad ideas are in italics. They have all been tested by me at one point or other, and are guaranteed to bring terrible results 🤣]

1. Ignore the problem and hope it will go away. Failing to take action will undermine the trust that the group has in you as the facilitator and the whole meeting will fall apart.

2. Call people out in public. I once interrupted a participant who had been rambling, to ask, "Can you finish your point?" That didn't go over very well. This only made the participant angry and even more determined to finish his point. A better alternative would have been to say, "I want to make sure that we understand you correctly. Do you mean that xxx? OK. Before we move on, can you tell us, if you were to put your point into a catchy phrase or one-liner, what would it be?"

3. Not make eye contact with the person who is causing the problem, and try to divert attention to other people in the room. "Umm... Let's hear what other people think." This is a variation of 1, and is more subtle, but still has the same negative effect. People who act in ways that are dysfunctional need to be heard and acknowledged, not ignored.

4. Label the dysfunction as about the person, not the behavior. The moment we label people as being selfish, dominating, indifferent, incompetent, passive, or whatever, even if we only do it inwardly in our minds, it shows in our nonverbal behavior and people react to it by either withdrawing or becoming aggressive. When we judge people in this way, it makes us blind to why they are acting that way, and closes avenues for dialogue and exploration.

5. Be perfunctory about setting ground rules. Especially with groups that have a history of conflict or with individuals who tend to dominate, having a discussion about ground rules is crucial. Bring up hypothetical scenarios (of someone going off topic or talking too long, for example) and ask the group how they would deal with the situation. In most cases, they will come up with humorous and light-hearted ways to keep each other accountable to the rules.

6. Design the agenda with ample time for unstructured discussion in a large group. This increases the likelihood of the discussion being "hijacked" by a few loud voices. Don't let this happen! Instead, mix up the group discussions so that people are talking in smaller groups of between 2-5 people, and keep people moving in different groups. If dominance is a concern, ask participants to take turns speaking at timed intervals, or practice listening deeply to each other without commenting on what the other has said (Constructivist Listening is a practice that may be useful).

7. Fail to look at the bigger picture. Our first impulse when we encounter dysfunctional behavior is to treat it at the level of individual behavior and try to fix it. But these behaviors are often symptoms of a wider problem that need to be addressed at a system level. Why does the person feel unheard? Whose contributions are valued, whose are not? How are decisions being made, and how are they implemented? These are some questions that may help uncover what is going on at the system level that impacts the individual level.

In sum, perhaps you've noticed that points 5, 6, 7 are all ways to preempt dysfunctional behavior so that they are less likely to happen in the first place. I think most dysfunctional behavior can be avoided this way. Point 4 requires "inner work", as it relates to our way of being, being reflexive of our biases and questioning why we are seeing certain behavior as "dysfunctional." Sometimes it's about us, not about them.

What are some ways you have dealt with dysfunctional behavior?

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