Five strategies for managing group dynamics in meetings

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I think my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Sadist, taught me what not to do as a group leader. When freckle faced Pat Shanhan threw a spitball, the whole class had to stay in for recess. Rather than exert peer pressure on Pat, it just made us focus our resentment on her. And when Billy Larenson was caught napping, the teacher called on him, just to embarrass him in front of the class. 

Unfortunately, some leaders took their lessons in leadership from people like Mrs. Sadist. They run lousy meetings and don’t have a clue about how to manage group dynamics. "Our department meetings are a nightmare!" a friend confided over coffee last week. "The department head doesn’t have a clue about how to handle the group, so it’s pretty much a free-for-all. She’s losing respect, too, because everyone wants her to regain control."

A large group can be intimidating even for a seasoned manager. Here are some tips I’ve used to lasso unruly group members without alienating the group. 

The dominator
This person uses a meeting for his or her personal forum on every agenda item. You need to cut him off but if you do it too harshly and wound his self-esteem, he will have hurt feelings and the group will side with him. 

Strategy: Look for a place to interrupt him, quickly summarize his point of view and turn to the group and say, "Does anyone else have an opinion about this?" or "Joe, I’d be interested in your opinion about this." 

The wallflower
You know she has good ideas but she’s just too shy to share them in a group setting. 

Strategy: Set her up with a little encouragement. "Susan, you’ve had experience with this in your last position. What can you tell us?" "Susan, you were telling me about an idea you had last week. Why don’t you share it with all of us?" 

Side conversations
In a big group, two people will often huddle together and start buzzing about something. If you embarrass them, you’ll look like Mrs. Sadist. Besides, they may be discussing a great idea about the topic. 

Strategy: Pause a little longer than normal before you make your next point. Sometimes that will cause them to stop talking (however, avoid giving them an evil glare). Call on someone who is sitting next to one of them. That will startle them enough to stop, without embarrassing them. If all else fails, "Hey, you two. You must have a good idea over there. How about filling the rest of us in?" 

Griper
This one is tricky, since he or she may have a legitimate point and you don’t want to shut down honest dialogue. 

Strategy: Summarize the basic concern the person is griping about. Use neutral words such as "She thinks the policy isn’t fair." Turn to the rest of the group and say, "What about this concern? Let’s examine it. Does anyone else feel this way?" If no one else joins in, the group can often diffuse the griper and you won’t have to do a thing. If the person is a chronic griper, it’s time for a private one-on-one conversation about what is at the bottom of his or her discontent. 

The quiet group
Groups can be reticent for many reasons. For instance, the topic may be an emotionally charged issue that could divide the group, or the leader may dominate the conversation, or the group may be resistant to a new change. 

Strategy: If your group is usually quiet, chances are you are the problem. Perhaps you talk too much or have intimidated people in the past when they had an idea that disagreed with your own. Your best strategy is to let others lead the discussion and reduce the frequency of your comments. Ask more questions and make fewer judgements. 

If the topic is political, don’t force a discussion in a group. You will have more luck talking with people individually. Then bring forth the range of opinions in a group session, without attributing comments to specific individuals. This will allow people to discuss pros and cons of a solution without being politically vulnerable. 

If you don’t know why your group is quiet, it’s time to ask them. The next time you meet, tell them that the only agenda item will be an evaluation of the group meeting format. The goal of the meeting will be to redesign your meetings to make them more effective. 


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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