Dealing with Team Members who are “Off-Track”

Roger Schwarz

Remember the last time you were in a team meeting and someone said something that seemed completely off-track? What happened next? If your team is like most, someone said something like, “Dan, that’s not what we’re talking about now” or “Let’s get back on track” or the team simply ignored Dan’s comment.

As a result, Dan may have continued to press his off-track point, the meeting dragged on with members getting more frustrated with Dan, and the team didn’t accomplish its meeting goals. Or Dan may have stopped participating for the rest of the meeting and the team, without realizing it, lost Dan’s critical input and support for implementing the team’s decision.Post-it-Effective-Teams

If you assume that Dan or others who get off-track are the problem and the solution is to get them back on track or stop them from talking, you may also be off-track. These team members’ behavior may be a symptom of larger team problems. Team members often make off-track comments when there isn’t clear agreement on the meeting purpose, when there isn’t agreement on the meeting process, or when the team doesn’t provide time to hear each team member’s thoughts on a topic.

In short, if your team doesn’t explicitly agree about and monitor what track it’s on, then team members use their own understanding of the meeting purpose and topic to guide their comments. When they have different understandings of the purpose or topic, then one team member’s comments can easily seem off-track to others.

You can increase the chance that all team members get and stay on the same track by jointly designing next steps as a team, one of the Eight Behaviors for Smarter Teams. Here are several ways to jointly design next steps:

  • Agreeing on the purpose of the meeting: Start your meeting by saying something like, “My understanding of the purpose of this meeting is to X; does anyone have a different understanding or think we need to add anything?” Starting off like this (even if you called the meeting and set the agenda), ensures that if people think other issues need to be addressed, they can say so explicitly, and have them considered for the agenda, rather than raising them as off-track items.

  • Moving to a new topic: Rather than say, “O.K, let’s move on” or simply move on to a new topic, say something like, “I think we’re ready to move to topic Y; anyone have anything else we haven’t fully addressed on X?” By saying this, you learn whether others are ready to move with you. If they’re not, find out what they need before they can move forward. This reduces the chance that people will raise issues that you thought had been fully discussed.

  • Dealing with people who are “off-track”: To return to our initial example, say something like, “Dan, I’m not seeing how your point about outsourcing is related to the topic of our planning process. Can you help me understand how they’re related?” When Dan responds, you and other team members might learn about a connection between the two topics that you hadn’t considered. For example, Dan might say that outsourcing will free up internal resources so that the team can complete the planning process in less time. If there is a connection, the team can decide whether it makes more sense to explore Dan’s idea now or later. If it turns out that Dan’s comment isn’t related, you can suggest placing it on a future agenda. By saying this – and meaning it, you’re assuming that Dan might be on-topic even though you don’t see the relationship.

This isn’t simply a nice way of dealing with people who are off-track. It’s a way to suspend your assumption that you understand the situation and others don’t, to be curious about others’ views, and to ask people to be accountable for their own contributions so that the team can make an informed choice about how best to move forward. 

By getting explicit agreement about the meeting track and topics and by being curious when people seem off-track, you and your team will move faster and more effectively in your meetings.