6 Ways to Deal with “Disengaged Debbie” in Meetings (or, How to Run a Meeting)

By Kevin on July 9, 2012 in career, employee engagement

They say one bad apple can ruin the bunch. So, too, can one disengaged employee derail an entire meeting.

Debbie Downer was the fictitious Saturday Night Live character who brought down the mood in any group she was in. Similarly, we all encounter “Disengaged Debbie”—or to be gender sensitive, “Disengaged David”—in our workplaces. Too often, these folks decide to become disengaged disruptors of our meetings.

Even best-in-class companies that have maximized Super Human Capital, with a 10-to-1 engaged to disengaged ratio, the odds are you’ll have one person who might derail your meetings if 10 or more are present.

Here are 6 ways to minimize the effect of “disengaged disruptors” in your meetings.

1) Circulate an agenda ahead of time.

Just having an agenda will help to keep everyone focused on the known task at hand. Distributing in advance will give people a chance to comment or add items to it before the meeting, and if they don’t, they’ve ceded their opportunity to alter the discussion.

2) If someone brings up an issue that isn’t on topic, put it aside for another time.

Suggest, “That’s an interesting topic that isn’t on the current agenda so let’s come back to it at the end of the meeting, and if we run out of time we can schedule a follow-up meeting to explore it further, ok?” Corporate trainers will often set up a flip chart ahead of time called “The Parking Lot” and as off-topic questions or comments come they’ll write them on paper explaining, “Let’s park that idea over here for now and come back to it later…”

3) If you are leading the meeting, lead it (i.e., be an active facilitator).

  • If someone interrupts another, remind the room, “Let’s all show mutual respect by listening fully before we respond.”
  • If someone is blabbing on for too long, interrupt with “Thanks for that, and for the sake of time and to give others a chance to comment we’re going to move on, ok?”
  • If side conversations start to break out, say loudly, “Hey everyone, please let’s have just one meeting here.”
  • If the meeting is concluding and Disengaged Debbie’s last comment risks ending on a down note, call out another participant who you know is an optimist or supports your views, “Natalie, we have just one minute left, can you share your thoughts with the group?”

4) Use parallel thinking to facilitate a true team conversation.

Invite everyone in the room to think along the same lines together. For example,

  • “Let’s all hold our opinions for the time being, and first let’s just dump out the facts of the matter. Just facts and data. Who’s first?”
  • “Now let’s discuss the potential downside. Can everyone come up with at least one risk?”
  • “What about benefits? Let’s all brainstorm the upside together.”

5) Put them in charge.

One of my favorite things to do is to put Disengaged Debbie in charge of the solution. I’ve heard all of the following, “Our marketing stinks…we don’t have enough fun around here…we aren’t doing enough for the Earth…the holiday party was too far away…” In each case I say, “I’d like to learn more. Can you talk to all your team members to get their input and give me a short report on what’s wrong and what you would do to fix it?” In most cases I just never hear from them again, other times as they dig into the issue they realize there are good reasons for why things are they way they are, and in other cases they come up with good ideas that I then ask them to implement. A win no matter what.

6) Keep Disengaged Debbie after class.

If someone’s behaviors or comments are clearly counter-productive to the organization’s goals have a one-on-one performance conversation; document it if necessary. Let them know clearly that their behavior is unacceptable and that there is a difference between constructive critique and destructive negativity. Find out if there is a something at the root of their disengagement or if a bigger issue is at hand.

Even with world class Super Human Capital you need to make sure a lone Disengaged Debbie (or Disengaged David) doesn’t derail a meeting of workplace super heroes.


Kevin Kruse is a NY Times bestselling author and keynote speaker. Get more success and tips from his newsletter at kevinkruse.com and check out keynote video clips. His new book, Employee Engagement 2.0, teaches managers how to turn apathetic groups into emotionally committed teams.

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