Handling Hijackers

I love facilitating meetings and workshops!  But I a secret fear of hijackers. Hijackers are those people who try to take over your meeting and change the direction.  Let’s unpack why people hijack, take a look at the different types of hijackers, and then get some tips on what we can do about it.

Why do people hijack?  The most important thing I’ve learned is that people aren’t hijacking your meeting to piss you off.  They really aren’t. They also aren’t doing it because they are control freaks who want to be in charge, or want to make you look bad.   

There are a lot of reasons someone might hijack your meeting.  Here are a few:

  • They have an urge to spend the time differently
  • They are a subject matter expert
  • They are passionate about the topic
  • They think they are collaborating
  • They feel like the agenda has lost sight of a much larger issue
  • They believe they are serving the needs of the group

As pure as their intentions might be, hijackers undermine the leader, which causes misalignment.  Leading from behind is an important skill for participants who are not leading, and leaders don’t hijack.   

The types of hijackers.  Hijackers come in all different packages.  Here are a few common profiles to help you identify them when they appear.  You might also see a bit of yourself in some of these!

  • The Sidler.  This hijacker loves what you are doing, and wants to lead with you. They sidle up and start co-leading.  
  • The Mutiny Leader.  This hijacker wants to overthrow your meeting.  They will openly solicit the group to follow them.  “What does everyone think, should we scrap this process and do it my way?”  
  • The Tenacious Turtle.  These hijackers are subtle, they slowly steer the discussion in the direction of their agenda.  Before you know it, you’ve lost control of the meeting.
  • The Executive Ranker.  This person outranks you so they’re going to make the meeting whatever they want to talk about.  You get to your first slide and they spend the rest of the time in a rabbit hole.

Preventing hijacking.  Setting the meeting container up at the start can go a long way to prevent hijacking.  For example, let the group know what you plan to do and warn them about potentially difficult topics.  For example, I show groups the Groan Zone model beforehand, let them know that they might enter this zone, and then I let them know when they are in it.  

You might also let the group know that this meeting might not be what they are used to. Perhaps it is a controversial or political topic. Set the expectation for the meeting and the process you are using.  As with any meeting, take a moment to set the context for the time you are asking people to spend together, and the outcome that you are intending.  

What can you do about it when it happens?  Despite your best efforts to set a container with clear boundaries, you might get a hijacker.  My old-self was quite expert at shutting that right down. The problem with that approach is that your hijacker might have a valuable perspective and if you shut them down you’ll miss it.  

Use your container.  The beauty of setting a container is that you can refer back to it when someone hijacks.  “I appreciate your view, we all agreed to this agenda for today and we have a goal, can we discuss a different format after the meeting.”

Call it out.  When you can't think of anything else to do, calling it out can really help.  I did this in a meeting just last week.  What I said was something like "I'm torn between wanting to move forward with the agenda and not wanting you to check out because this format isn't working for you."  This was enough by itself to shift the group back to life and say "no, it's a good point, but I'd like to stay on the agenda".  The rest of the group quickly moved back into the container.

Get to the underlying issue.  Take a shot a letting the hijacker be heard, but bound the discussion by the container you have set.  For example, “It seems like you want to change the agenda. What’s driving that?” or the coaching angle, “I hear your passion on this topic.  What’s there for you now?”  Find a way to weave their agenda back into yours.

Use it as a learning opportunity for the group.  When someone hijacks your meeting, it could be a great opportunity for people to see the reaction in real-time.  Make sure to point that out!  "Does everyone see how passionate Tom is about the threat to our business?  Can we use this to learn what our customers are feeling?"  If you have no idea what to learn from it, ask the group.  "What can we learn from what just happened here?"

How have you handled hijackers?  Let us know!