Inclusive meetings help to create a positive team environment in which team members feel psychologically safe and maximize effectiveness. Yet, meetings are notorious for distorted power dynamics and bias.
In the day-to-day running of business, meetings are a good microcosm of your organizational culture. They are the forums where people draw together, define issues, hold discussions, explore ideas, debate solutions and make decisions.
Meetings are both the potential building blocks of inclusion in your culture and indicators of what’s going on, right now. Sit in just a handful of meetings, and you may already know whether a culture embraces diversity of thought and a learning mindset, or prioritizes other values.
Inclusion is ultimately comprised of an individual’s experience of everyday interactions. Meetings are a key opportunity for practical adjustments that normalize inclusion in your organization. Facilitating inclusive meetings could be a key area for high value training.
A positive team environment is the most important driver for psychological safety. And psychological safety has been identified as the most important predictor of an effective team. Inclusive meetings help to create a positive team environment in which team members feel psychologically safe and maximize effectiveness. Yet, meetings are notorious for distorted power dynamics and bias.
Take gender dynamics, for one. An experiment in the tech workplace in 2014 found that men interrupted at twice the rate women do and are three times more likely to interrupt women than men. (Women interrupt far less but still interrupt women more, too). An observational study showed that about 90% of men’s interruptions were intrusive interruptions that usurp the speaker’s turn at talking. Cultural conditioning has put disproportionate value on men’s voices. Women speak up 25% less than men in meetings. And male executives win competency points when they speak longer, while women lose them.
Despite the best intentions, many kinds of bias can also arise in meeting dynamics. For example, proximity bias creates preference towards those close to you which disadvantages remote joiners in a hybrid meeting. Expedience bias favors moving quickly to decision and action, which gives disproportionate influence to those who assert their views first and often disadvantages introverts. Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek to confirm what we already believe and prove ourselves right, while ignoring contrasting views.
The long and short of all of this? Inclusive meetings don’t just happen. Inclusive meetings happen by intention and design.
1. Send out an agenda in advance. First of all, create an agenda to crystallize the core focus of the meeting - what is the objective, what questions, topics or issues will be addressed, and what decisions will be made? This will help to make sure you’re not having a meeting for meeting’s sake and prevent getting lost in smaller issues (bike-shedding effect) or competing side agendas. As you create the agenda, consult with key stakeholders to make sure you’ve considered their voice in aligning what needs to be covered. Then, send the agenda out at least 24 hours in advance to give those who may benefit (eg introverts and underrepresented voices) the opportunity to reflect, prepare and process. This is a prime opportunity to pre-set the tone of inclusion, such as encouraging people to come with their ideas and be open to hearing other’s ideas.
2. Be intentional with attendee invites. One way to make sure all important voices are heard is to check that all the necessary people are present (ask who is affected by this and who should be there? and do we have people who will provide diverse perspectives?). At the same time, make sure that those who don’t need to be there have a choice to opt out. A good agenda will hone the meeting focus enough for you to make a clear invitee list and for some individuals to discern if they need to attend.
3. Be mindful about timing and time. Consider different time zones and do your best to schedule in normal working hours. When meetings have to fall outside of them, rotate meeting times to not always inconvenience the same people in certain time zones. Also make sure to plan meetings the right length to allow different voices to be heard and for key conclusions to be reached together. Place off-agenda items that come up into a virtual parking lot for another time.
4. Set up more equal seating. In live meetings, physical positions can create a hierarchy of importance. Think about a sharing circle - is everyone visible, equally spread out, able to see and engage with the speaker and each other? Encourage people to sit in a different chair from the last time to shake up habits of the physical dynamic.
5. Begin with introductions. This makes everyone feel welcome; introducing the people in the room can be your way to signal to others why they are important in this discussion. By welcoming people, you also communicate your place as the meeting facilitator. Depending on the length and purpose of the meeting, adding an ice-breaker in which people share briefly can help to build connection before moving onto your topics.
6. Establish codes of conduct. Set up conversational ground rules from the outset - such as valuing all ideas and opinions, not talking over each other, calling out interruptions and reassuring that no question is a stupid question. Be clear about the focus of discussion you want to have in this gathering. Remind remote attendees about online features to have their voices and ideas heard without interrupting. Agree on being respectful even in disagreement. Model using inclusive language. Here are some example ground rules:
7. Invite novel thoughts, dissenting views and risk-taking. Make it clear that you welcome differing views and, when appropriate, half-baked thoughts. Give people the reassurance that they can express counter views without fear of retribution. Invite dissenting views and unheard perspectives to create healthy friction around ideas. Give people permission to challenge or respectfully disagree with you, too.
8. Iterate the meeting structure. From the agenda, reiterate the key themes of the meeting and pre-state what the flow will be. If you plan to gather viewpoints in a certain way, share how that will work (going around the table). Before you begin, make sure everyone is clear about what’s being talked about, how the meeting will progress, what the objectives are and what they are responsible for.
9. Assign clear roles and then rotate them. If there are particular roles such as note-taker or topic facilitator, set that out from the beginning. Make sure these roles rotate at different meetings, so that certain individuals aren’t always stuck with admin tasks. Give underrepresented voices, and junior voices, an opportunity to demonstrate their leadership skills where possible.
10. Facilitate through inclusion cues. As a leader, you play a critical role because the mindset, behavior and cues you embody illustrate what you expect as a cultural norm and what others will often emulate. So be intentional. Promote transparency, create connection, be curious, normalize constructive tension, ask clarifying questions, show trust, actively listen and take personal accountability. Be a consultative and supportive meeting leader, which encourages team members to support each other more, too.
11. Stop interruptions. Set a zero tolerance rule for interruptions. At the same time, reserve the authority to diffuse “in-crowd” dynamics, alpha individuals, and antagonist motives from dominating the floor or derailing the discussion. Call it out when you see someone being cut across or silenced in a discussion, such as by saying “Hold on, I want to make sure I hear Nadia fully before you add your viewpoint…Nadia, can you continue your thought?”
12. Bring out underrepresented viewpoints. Make room for and empower alternative voices in the room - for example, asking what a junior member thinks because they may have fresh eyes on the project. Ask to hear from someone who you haven’t heard from yet. Call in the people who you know can add value to the conversation but may be less vocal. Rather than put some people on the spot, provide alternative ways to contribute - such as the chat functionality. Ask quieter team members in advance if there is anything you can do to support them sharing their thoughts in the meeting.
13. Disrupt, accredit, affirm! One way to counter the bias present in meetings is through behaviors that actively disrupt them. Use positive interjections such as “that’s very valuable perspective.” To counter the issue of men’s reverbalization and appropriation of ideas introduced by a woman, actively reinforce the idea and re-accredit it to the person who introduced it. You might say, “I am glad Sasha first introduced that idea to the discussion, and I appreciate how you’ve reinforced (or built upon) it.” Acknowledge contributions, highlight when value is being added and give public attribution to ideas.
14. Provide alternative ways to share. To further encourage all viewpoints, explore and provide multiple modes of contributing. One method is to create a pause to formulate individual thoughts by jotting them down before sharing verbally in the group. This can reduce bandwagon effect. Do break-out groups to encourage smaller discussions. Chat function is another way. Be open to receive thoughts before and after the meeting.
15. Be transparent about how decisions are made. Be transparent with meeting attendees about how the decision-making processes will happen after the meeting. This helps to increase a sense of ownership and being valued as a contributor.
16. Align and communicate agreements and actions. Make sure that at the end of key topics and/or at the end of the meeting, everyone is clear by reiterating agreements and decisions, what the next steps are and who is responsible for action points. Amortize responsibility across individuals. Assign spotlight opportunities inclusively. Give space to voice concerns that weren’t already expressed. Send a follow-up note after the meeting with key points captured and actions clearly defined.
17. Make value and appreciation evident. Don’t let any meeting happen in a vacuum where you’ve forgotten why you’re all there. Remember to connect the project to the value you are creating towards the organizational mission and reiterate the role participants are playing in contributing to the bigger objectives through this work.
18. Invite feedback! Ask for feedback on how meetings are conducted and be receptive to suggestions and ideas for improvement. Just having the ability to input into the way a team conducts itself increases psychological safety already.
With the right approach, mindset and practical adjustments, your meetings will soon help to spread inclusion through your culture.