Personalities in the room
Identifying the different personalities you interact with during meetings is a great skill for everyone to have. It can be applied to all meetings and participants, and it helps you keep your meeting productive and on track.
by Yvonne Chen
I’ve had archetypes on the brain lately.
Carl Jung defines these as universal, mythic patterns of human elements that are steeped in our culture, our religions, our art, our dreams. They appear to us autonomously and sometimes hidden away, buried deep inside us. Archetypes sit in our collective unconscious, residing there quietly until they surface to consciousness where we deduce their existence through consistent patterns of behavior and interactions.
Deduce... pfft! Carl should have sat in on my meetings, where archetypes routinely run amok.
Agile practitioners, it’s important to know who’s in your meetings. We deal with stories daily, we design grand plans and schemes, we take our users on elaborate journeys – and yes, we also have archetypes sitting among us, drinking coffee and La Croix.
As software developers, designers, and planners who always face this far-off deadline glimmering in the distance or that roaring client standing between you and victory, it’s up to you to understand who you’ll meet and whether they are friend or foe (or... fowl?). Identifying the different personalities you interact with during meetings is a great skill for everyone to have; it can be applied to all meetings and participants, and it helps you keep your meeting productive and on track.
So, who are these larger-than-life models? What personalities might you encounter in your next meeting? To the listicle!
Who: The Benevolent Dictator
AKA: The 800lb Gorilla in the Room (when dominating or very assertive), The Know It All (when more annoying or close-minded)
Motto: I know what is best for the team.
Belief: I can lead the group to the right solution via my experience and expertise.
Strategy: Directs and restricts the conversation. Chooses the ideas and actions that s/he feels are best.
Characteristics: Kind and friendly, but can be close-minded, controlling, or overly assertive.
Countermeasures: Politely but firmly bring up different points of views or solicit feedback from the group as a gentle reminder that regardless of experience, the best decisions are reached via team consensus. Know also when to listen to the Benevolent Dictator’s experience.
Who: The Conclusion Jumper
AKA: The Interrupter, The Self-Designated Smartest Person in the Room
Motto: I don’t need to hear everything you have to say, I’ve got it.
Belief: I’ve figured things out before anyone else, and I’m going to let you know it.
Strategy: Presents a conclusion from partial information, then argues for it. Often prone to error. Breaks the flow of analysis or discussions when the team is trying to tease out a solution.
Characteristics: Impatient, articulate, convincing, sometimes stubbornly sticks to a point.
Countermeasures: If the team is being led down the wrong path, explain politely where the Conclusion Jumper has gone astray. Know that even in the face of complete information, the Conclusion Jumper may still stick to his/her guns, and be prepared to continue clarifying or negotiate. Depending on the audience and context, you may have to take things offline – polish up those persuasion skills!
Who: The Evil Genius
AKA: The Faux Team Player, Moriarty
Motto: I have my own agenda to pursue, and I’m not telling you what it is.
Belief: I can and will use any means or strategy to achieve my goals, and I’m entitled to do so because I’m smarter and it’s what I want.
Strategy: Manipulates and obfuscates. May not see the full picture. Conspires while convincing. Distracts, distorts, politicks.
Characteristics: Manipulative, insidious, political, superficially open and honest.
Countermeasures: When this person’s agenda is known, be prepared in advance with details on why you advocate a different approach. In general, press for details to surface hidden intents and surprises. Acknowledge this dynamic with the team and ask for their support in advance of the meeting. Clearly document and distribute all decisions and any questions left unresolved, so there’s no doubt on the way forward. It may be necessary to appeal to the decision maker, which can be a double-edged sword where you’ll have to abide by whatever choice is made.
Who: The Facilitator
AKA: The Guide, The Team Lead, The Project Manager
Motto: I’m here to help and lead the way!
Belief: To lead the group to the right solution via efficient discussion and agreement.
Strategy: Directs the conversation without becoming attached to any one idea or person. Visualizes complex topics to facilitate the discussion. Challenges, directs, and recalls important points. Mediates conflicts. Creates flow. Ends the meeting on time with an actionable decision.
Characteristics: Calm, attentive, patient, servant leadership.
Countermeasures: None. Do not impede this person – let them do their thing.
Who: The Gladiator
AKA: The Thin Skinned (variation)
Motto: It’s all about combat!
Belief: The best results come from heated discussion/argument.
Strategy: Challenges any and all statements. Fires questions exhaustively. Sometimes confrontational.
Characteristics: Challenging and obstinate. Enjoys debate even on contentious terms. Dangerous for group dynamics. Doesn’t take it personally and doesn’t understand why you do. Optional (see variation): gets offended and then makes the meeting about their injured ego.
Countermeasures: Take a firm hand and remind the team of the agenda and the goal you’re trying to achieve. Set meeting constraints (e.g., a time limit) and let those work for you. When necessary, intervene and ask the team to consider the problem and solutions at hand without taking sides. Also explore silent consensus-building techniques like affinity diagrams (for shorter decisions) or the KJ Method (longer or more complex decisions) that will help limit verbal debate.
Who: The Hero
AKA: Superman, Wonder Woman, The Superstar
Motto: I know how to rescue you!
Belief: I bring special skills and knowledge, and you must let me use them.
Strategy: Jumps in to answer questions, solve problems, soothe injured feelings, and otherwise cares for participants. Speaks authoritatively on his/her domain.
Characteristics: Offers details and solutions rather than asking questions. Firm but not overbearing. Knowledgeable and influential. Willing and able to do the heavy lifting.
Countermeasures: None. Periodically buy this person coffee or lunch.
Who: The Initiate
AKA: The n00b, The Novice, The New Kid on the Block
Motto: I’m new, and I’m here to learn!
Belief: I know that I don’t know a lot about the current domain, but I’m here to help however I can.
Strategy: Asks questions. Clarifies discussion. Benefits from beginner’s mind and sometimes sees insights that more experienced team members otherwise miss.
Characteristics: Novice. Likely well-versed in another domain new to the company or team (for which s/he was hired). Eager to learn and a willing volunteer.
Countermeasures: Clarify acronyms or terminology that might be new to the Initiate. Take an extra minute or two to provide context, whether this might be explaining the history of the project or the rationale behind an architectural decision. Remember that we all have been in the same place at one time.
Who: The Meeting Hog
AKA: The Rambler, The Dominator, The Storyteller, The Repetitor (variation)
Motto: Let me dazzle you with my knowledge and wit and expertise and life history.
Belief: People love what I have to say because I’m so articulate and I have such a way with words.
Strategy: Dominates the conversation by talking and talking and talking and talking. Tends to rule over everyone else – speaking out of turn and monopolizing the discussion.
Characteristics: Verbose. Relentless. Often self-unaware. May sprinkle in relevant info among a flood of unnecessary details. Capable of sucking all the oxygen out of a room.
Countermeasures: It may be necessary to interrupt this person frequently. Thank the dominator for his/her input and then ask others on the team for their feedback. Actively solicit the opinions of others. Ask if the conversation is going off topic. If necessary, use tools and enlist others to help keep the meeting on track, such as: using the physical layout of a meeting room, a whiteboard, a talking token or structured speaking format, the meeting agenda, even your peers themselves.
Who: The Negator
AKA: The Contrarian, Negative Nancy
Motto: I disagree with whatever you have to say.
Belief: I demonstrate how smart I am by disagreeing with you and explaining why you’re wrong.
Strategy: May agree with the group at first, but then goes against the flow. Interrupts analysis and group flow.
Characteristics: Articulate, challenging, sometimes confrontational, loquacious, and oftentimes an expert in the domain.
Countermeasures: Don’t get drawn into arguments and just stick to the facts. Anticipate negative claims and then preempt these by reviewing and dismissing them logically. Act as a positive role model. Consider again affinity diagrams for a more visual, democratic approach. For the Negative Nancies who are more complainers than obstructors, don’t allow them to make sweeping proclamations (“This will never work!”) and do ask for details to keep them accountable.
Who: The Neutral One
AKA: Switzerland, The Quiet One
Motto: It’s not up to me.
Belief: Neutrality prevents conflict.
Strategy: Rarely expresses an opinion or takes a position, while remaining facilitative.
Characteristics: Passive but collaborative. Mostly supporting. Often redirects questions back to others on the team or repeats a previously agreed-upon point.
Countermeasures: If this person is simply being quiet, try soliciting their opinion – while remembering to do so in a non-threatening way, as Neutral Ones are sometimes shy. Discuss with them offline how you can help make sharing their opinions more comfortable. If you’re encountering someone who's determined not to rock the boat, assess if they’re a decision maker (this doesn’t happen often). If you have a decision maker who is truly neutral, I suggest an offline conversation where you clarify responsibilities and underscore that having clear requirements and timely decisions are necessary for the team to operate well.
Who: The Team Player
AKA: You’re the Best
Motto: I’m here with the team to figure things out.
Belief: I want to contribute whenever possible and get the team to the right decision or solution.
Strategy: Speaks up in areas of domain or technical expertise. Enables and empowers others. Solicits and offers constructive, critical thinking. Optional: brings energy and enthusiasm to the meeting to lift the team.
Characteristics: Knowledgeable, friendly, a willing delegate for action items.
Countermeasures: If the team player is negotiating a delicate topic that you’re in agreement with, back them up and offer your support.
Who: The Unprepared
AKA: The Latecomer
Motto: Um, I didn’t know we would be talking about this today.
Belief: Has none.
Strategy: Asks questions that make it clear s/he isn’t prepared. Forces the facilitator or others to waste time by recapping and explaining previous points. Relies on the knowledge of the group vs. personal accountability. Sends the group down rabbit holes gathering details that could have been collected outside of the meeting.
Characteristics: Often late to meetings. Willing to ask questions.
Countermeasures: This may be a less popular approach, but I don’t like to acknowledge latecomers. Doing so subtly reinforces that the entire group will pause a meeting and use precious minutes to get one person back up to speed. Recapping also devalues those who came punctually to the meeting. For the unprepared, let that person sit in attentive discomfort and then after the meeting, ask them 1-1 how they can help be more prepared at the next meeting. If this person, however, is a VIP or client so-and-so, all bets (and your meeting agenda) are off.
It should be noted that the above list of archetypes and countermeasures is by no means an exhaustive list. All personalities will have interesting potential variations to watch out for. For example, once upon a time, I realized I was dealing with a meeting attendee who I dubbed the Asymptotic Gladiator. This meeting attendee would start off strong with around 2-3 challenging statements during the first 15 minutes of every meeting. Then, once dominance was asserted, the attendee settled down into amicable agreement and checking emails.
And as my co-worker Andrew pointed out, personalities are by no means a one-to-one fit. You may very well encounter archetypes or aspects of multiple archetypes overlapping in just one person. It’s a great day when you meet The Hero who is also a truly Benevolent Dictator, and my hope is that you’ll never have to deal with a Meeting Hog and Switzerland rolled into one.
So now you know who you might meet in a meeting, and knowing, as they say, is half the battle.
Have I missed any archetypes, or have you encountered others? Share with us what conquering heroines or dastardly villains you’ve met in your meetings!
This post was inspired by and expands upon ThoughtWorks Studios' facilitation personalities.