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Taming troublemakers

I’ve just started reading an industry-leading management guide to making meetings matter; the front-page part of the offering states ‘Tame Troublemakers’.

What follows are ideas to sort this person out, to clarify the damaging impact they are having on the meeting and the group.

This makes me shudder….

The inference is that it is the troublemaker who is the problem – not the way you hold the space of the meeting, not what the rest know but won’t own up to, or the relationships people have with each other, but the ‘troublemaker’. This is archaic and potentially misguided – and who doesn’t hate being ‘handled’ and not heard?

If you have ‘troublemakers’ in your meetings or your teams, they are holding valuable data on what’s genuinely going on in the workspace. I’m a ‘troublemaker’, and I get upset, angry, emotional, dismissive, sulky, or silent when triggered in a meeting space. I can’t help it; I find it hard to control myself – if you act as if I need to be separated off and calmed down and made to take full responsibility for my behaviour, you’re missing a trick.

The trick is that the individual is most likely hoovering up the emotion in the room that should be shared out with others, something’s going on, and you might want to find out what it is (by the way, this is called “projection” and “projective identification” (Klein 1946)).

One way of using this trick is when a group projects all the stuff it can’t handle onto an individual. If the individual is somewhat absorbent for the emotion being projected, i.e., anxiety, they’ll suck it all up on behalf of the group and then act out. The group then sits there, collective hands washed of the anxiety, looking at the ‘troublemaker’ like they are the difficult one.

So, what can you do as a leader?

It's no surprise that there’s no quick answer; it’s an art, something you must practice if you’re interested. Have a go at some ideas, mix and match for what feels doable for you.

  • Ask the person kicking off to say more about how they are feeling.

  • Notice if any of it resonates with you.

  • Own it, say ‘I notice I feel that too, anyone else?” Important to get skin in the game by owning it yourself, don’t chicken out and make it someone else’s problem to own up.

  • If you don’t feel it, ask if anyone else does.

  • Listen to what they have to say – try to hear from everyone, and be open to moving in a different direction or re-contracting on the task at hand.

  • Or, if the person is the only person, ask them things like “what do you need from us”? “Where do you think we should be focussing?”

It may become a point where it needs to be taken up at another time; say that, restate the purpose for the meeting and carry on. Follow up immediately after the meeting to schedule some time with the ‘troublemaker’. In that meeting, get curious about what they might be picking up that you are not.

We ‘troublemakers’ can be corporate barometers of what’s really going on. We won’t be the only ones feeling it, we’re just the ones where it shows up the most.

If this isn’t something you want to work through by yourself, get in touch, and we’ll help.


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