I have a question about a co-worker, Sam, who has LOTS of questions in our weekly team meetings. Because of the busy nature of our job and our small team, there are often situations where we have guidelines to follow, but are free to make judgment calls as needed, since there’s no rule book that will apply to every situation. Our leadership is very clear that we won’t be punished for a wrong decision made with good intentions in an unusual situation.
Sam has lots and lots of questions in our team meetings, and seems to want a clear-cut answer about The One Right Way to do something, when there’s usually not a one-size-fits-all answer. It ends up dragging out the meeting, which is exacerbated by the fact that our manager, Carolyn, tends to be long-winded, so each clarifying question turns into another whole spiel. The meetings often end up being largely conversations between Sam and Carolyn that seem better suited for individual check-ins (which we have once a week), and I can see other admins becoming visibly frustrated and wanting to get back to work. To make this worse, these conversations often come when the meeting has clearly wrapped up and Carolyn throws out a quick, “Does anyone have any last questions?”
My title is senior admin, and my function is basically that of a team lead or shift supervisor. Carolyn manages all of us, and the rest of our team comes to me with questions first and I pass them along only if I can’t answer. Carolyn asks me to report to her on how staff are doing and to check in with them during their shifts to see if they have questions, but I don’t have any actual management responsibilities. I’m also good friends with Sam outside of work, and I feel both of these things make me well-suited to help resolve this and save the sanity of myself and our fellow admins.
After the last meeting where this happened, Sam texted me to ask if he was being “annoying,” and I told him that he seems to be asking about one way to do things when often the answer is not so clear-cut or it’s all case by case. He responded that he often feels like Carolyn is meandering and not really answering his question, which is why he keeps trying to clarify and repeat his questions, and that he asks them during our group meetings because he feels the answers would be important for all of us to know. From my perspective, I feel that (a) the questions he asks are basic questions about processes that have been in place for months and which we are all familiar with (i.e., not questions anyone else has or needs to hear), and (b) Carolyn is answering his questions, but the answers are essentially “it depends,” when he seems to be trying to get her to say yes or no.
Is there something you’d recommend I say in the moment, or to Sam or our boss privately, or is this just the reality of meetings and something we’ll have to live with?
Nah, you should speak up. You have lots of standing to say something — as a person at the meetings who’s being impacted, of course, but also as (a) the team lead and (b) a person Sam asked to weigh in. In fact, given all that, you have something akin to an engraved invitation to speak up!
In an ideal world, your manager should redirect Sam when he starts hijacking a meeting — saying something like, “Let’s talk about that in our next check-in” or “We’re running over our time so everyone’s free to leave, although anyone who wants to hear more on this is welcome to stay.” And if she agrees that Sam is overly focused on finding The One Right Way in situations where that doesn’t apply, she should talk with him privately about that.
But since she’s not doing that, you can tackle this from a few different angles yourself.
First and foremost, talk to Sam! He asked for your opinion. It sounds like you might have pulled your punches a bit when he asked for your take earlier: You told him that he seems to be having trouble when there’s not a clear-cut answer to something, but shied away from telling him that he’s using up way more than his share of air time in the meetings. That’s understandable — it’s hard to tell someone to talk less, especially in a spur-of-the-moment conversation that you aren’t prepared for. But it’s worth going back to him now and saying something like, “I thought on this more, and I believe it would be helpful to save questions like X and Y for your check-ins with Carolyn. My sense is that the rest of the group is usually ready to move on and our meetings are often running over time. If it’s turning into a conversation just between you and Carolyn, it would be better to bring those things to her one-on-one rather than use the whole group’s time on it.”
Second, talk to your manager too. As the team lead, you’ve been specifically charged with keeping Carolyn in the loop about how the team is doing, and if you’re seeing people regularly becoming frustrated and impatient with Sam’s monopolizing, that’s good feedback to pass along.
Of course, before speaking for anyone else, make sure you’re right — which you could do by informally checking in with people to see how they’re feeling about the meeting length, content, etc. You could even say directly, “I’m thinking about suggesting that Sam hold questions like X and Y for his check-ins with Carolyn, but I won’t do that if you find those discussions helpful.”
Alternately, you can simply speak up in the moment. The next time Sam goes on a lengthy digression, you could say, “I think this is mostly a discussion between you and Carolyn. Since we’re getting short on time, would it work to hold it for your next one-on-one?” Or if the meeting is supposed to be ending, in most offices you could say, “Mind if I duck out? I’ve got a hard stop at 3” … and let other team mates know privately that it’s okay for them to do the same if they need to. Sometimes that will signal to the conversation hijacker or the person running the meeting that they should be wrapping things up — and if not, at least you get to leave.
But first, try talking to both Carolyn and Sam. They’ve each invited you to — Sam directly, and Carolyn through the role she’s assigned you on the team.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.