Think back to your last team meeting. Did you get in everything you wanted to say? Did that one rambunctious teammate jump in before you could finish your killer point? We’ve all been there.
It feels like crap, right? Yet, the truth is that how it makes us feel is only part of the story. There’s also the not-so-trivial matter of how being ignored or talked over in meetings limits the entire group’s performance.
Consider that companies who are robustly diverse report growing market share 45% more often than their more homogeneous counterparts and are 70% more likely to capture a new market, according to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation. Why? Because when a group is demographically diverse and has diverse experiences like military service, multi-lingual skills, education or work abroad, etc., it gains what’s called “cognitive diversity”. And cognitive diversity – varied perspectives, thought patterns, and problem-solving approaches – produces better solutions.
Julia Taylor Kennedy, Executive Vice President at CTI, puts it this way:
When you have the experience of being the ‘other’, even if it’s because you purposefully put yourself into those situations, you gain empathy for people who are outside the majority.
In other words, you’re better at anticipating the edge cases and accounting for them from the get-go.
But there’s a catch. If we don’t counteract the sub-conscious biases we all (yes, all) carry, and create an environment where everyone can contribute, we don’t actually benefit from that diversity. Which brings us back to meetings. Women, people of color, remote workers, and introverts often struggle to be heard in meetings. Based on what we know about the benefits of diversity, the impact of excluding certain groups is that the entire team misses out on valuable ideas and insights that lead to new opportunities. In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing marketplace, this could mean bad news even for teams with high diversity and potential.
Fostering a culture of inclusive meetings is emerging as a competitive advantage. Building that culture is a matter of understanding the biases that sabotage our effectiveness as teams, then adjusting your approach to meeting facilitation.
Kennedy points out that inclusive leaders create an environment where it’s safe to propose novel ideas and everyone can be heard, which creates a sense of belonging amongst a team’s diverse members. And while relatively few of us show up as leaders on an org chart, we can all demonstrate inclusive leadership qualities in the way we facilitate meetings.
What is an inclusive meeting, anyway? In an inclusive meeting, everyone gets a chance to contribute and all voices have equal weight. The facilitator helps people prepare by sharing the agenda in advance and takes care to minimize interruptions during the meeting, resulting in a better outcome.
Three types of bias that sabotage your meeting’s value
Even the most social-justice minded and well-intentioned people harbor unconscious biases. (If you think you’re the exception, take this test developed by Harvard researchers. Go on… I’ll wait.) Renee Cullian of Harvard Business Review identified three specific biases are especially destructive in the context of running effective meetings.
“Smart people think on their feet and react quickly.” This negatively affects introverts. Let’s say you ask a group where you should go to dinner tonight. You might think the first person to raise their hand has the best answer, just because they were first. Meanwhile, a culinary expert who happens to be a bit shy is going through her mental list of fabulous local restaurants. She’s actually the more credible source of information. She just takes time to think before she speaks.
“Out of sight, out of mind.” This one affects colleagues joining the meeting by phone or video. We humans are hard-wired to pay the most attention to things (or, people) in close physical proximity to us. It’s rare that we intentionally exclude people joining remotely, but it’s easy to forget they’re there.
“Men have more to contribute.” Men interrupt women far more often than they interrupt other men, sometimes so they can explain something the woman actually knows more about or reiterate the woman’s idea as if it were their own. (This is where we get the terms “manterruption”, “mansplaining”, and “bropropriation”.) The behavior may not be intentional, but its pervasiveness is proven by research.
We’ll probably never be rid of these biases because they exist on a sub-conscious level. They’re our default setting. The trick is using our conscious brains to override them.
Before the meeting
Share an agenda at least 24 hours in advance. Not only is this good meeting etiquette (I mean, you do this anyway… right?), you’ll get better contributions from any introverts in the group since they tend to spend more time processing and reflecting before they respond. It also benefits remote workers, who miss out on the hallway conversations at the office and might not arrive with the same information and context as the rest of the group otherwise.
Furthermore, make sure you budget time for each agenda item wisely. Yes, we want to be efficient. But take it to the extreme, and the pressure to move the meeting along will eclipse the contributions of less vocal participants.
✅ Tip: Grab our free meeting notes template. It includes space for the agenda and follow-up tasks, too (more on those in a moment).
You’ll need to balance getting the right mix of cognitively diverse attendees against the need to keep the invite list as lean as possible. The more people present, the harder it will be for everyone to collaborate and contribute. When too many people are talking over each other trying to have their say, quieter folks will fade into silence and you’ll only get input from louder, more dominant people.
During the meeting
Leveling the playing field is the name of the game. Make sure everyone is sitting at the table – no “overflow” chairs in the back of the room, please! If people are clustered at one end of the table, spread them out so everyone can be seen and heard. If any attendees are dialing in using a phone bridge or video conference, be sure to put the microphone in the center of the table so it can pick up everyone’s voice.
Speaking of remote attendees, the team at Trello shared one of their remote work best practices with us: if one person is joining remotely, the whole meeting is remote. Seriously. Even people at the office join from their desks using a service like Zoom or BlueJeans. (Google Hangouts also gets the job done if you’re on a budget.) This is next-level field-leveling! It puts everyone on equal footing with regard to non-verbal cues, being able to see who is speaking, and taking turns to speak. Besides: nobody likes being the giant head on the TV at one end of the room.
As the meeting gets underway, take a moment to introduce each attendee and say why they’re here. Not only does this make people feel valued and more confident, it’s useful information for everyone else. From there, it’s all about wigs – or, WWIGS.
- Whole group in on the action – Proactively give less dominant participants the floor by calling on them individually. And if you have remote attendees, regularly check on them to see if they’re able to follow the conversation and contribute.
- Write it down – When a big question arises, have the group take a few minutes to put their ideas on paper then go around and have everyone share. This gives less vocal participants time to gather their thoughts and ensures their voice will be heard.
- Interrupt interruptions – Come equipped with phrases like “Hang on a sec – I want to make sure I understand Fatima’s point before we add to it.” If one person is dominating or interrupting repeatedly, hand them the whiteboard marker and make them the scribe. This intrinsically shifts them into listening mode.
- Give credit where it’s due – Acknowledge each other’s contributions. Studies have shown that the positive contributions of women in the workplace have little to no impact on performance reviews, while equal contributions from men led to significantly higher performance evaluations.
- Solidify consensus – Recap actions the group might take so people have a chance to voice agreement or concerns.
✅ Tip: Be careful not to put anyone on the spot by pressuring them to have a meaningful answer instantly. Ironically, a closed question like “Joan, would you agree with what’s been said so far?” can actually help that person open up. If they have something meaningful to add, they now have the floor to elaborate.
Before wrapping up, summarize new information that surfaced during the meeting, any decisions the group made, and what’s still an open question. Don’t forget to clarify the owners and due dates of follow-up tasks, too. Then celebrate what you accomplished! A simple “We did X, Y, and Z, and now we’re unblocked – thanks everyone!” helps keep the energy high.
After the meeting
As the organizer, it’s your job to circulate a follow-up message (via email, Confluence page, chat, etc.) that covers:
- Takeaways – What key pieces of info did we gain? What decisions did we make?
- Actions – What do we need to do now?
- Owners – Who is going to make sure it gets done?
- New ideas – Encourage people to chime in with any additional thoughts or ideas now that everyone has had a chance to process things a bit.
If you tend to lose sight of action items, deputize someone from the group to keep tabs on them or put a reminder on your calendar. It’s ok to re-evaluate commitments if something comes up… just don’t neglect them.
Like any culture shift, building a culture of inclusion takes commitment and patience. But as you can see, the mechanics aren’t hard. Best of all, it’s not a zero-sum game. Nobody has to be excluded in order for somebody else to be included. You brought each person to the table for a reason. Wouldn’t it be a shame not to benefit from their full contribution?
Special thanks to my partner-in-crime and fellow inclusive meetings evangelist Leanna Leung for her contributions to this article.
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