A Harvard Business Review study found that only 35% of employees surveyed felt consistently comfortable contributing in meetings. In meetings of five to ten people, that’s only two to three people who feel empowered to contribute. Historically, three segments of the workforce are routinely overlooked: introverts, remote workers, and women. Additional studies show that even when they do speak up, women are far more likely to be interrupted in meetings, have their ideas taken less seriously, and even co-opted by other teammates. It’s likely that leaders aren’t actively silencing these voices, but rather there are hidden biases at play.
Setting a diverse workforce up for success requires a commitment to the practices of inclusion, and leading or participating in an inclusive meeting is a skill that everyone has to develop and refine. Additionally, as most meetings are now being conducted virtually, employees may need to relearn or adapt new inclusive practices. Explicitly defining inclusivity and being clear and transparent about what it looks like in meetings will help everyone.
Consider our advice below on how to ensure that before, during, and after the meeting, your policy and practices are as inclusive as possible…
Prior to the Meeting
- Only invite those who absolutely need to be there, while ensuring the invitees represent diverse perspectives, experiences, and knowledge.
- Agendas should be detailed with clear objectives, and identify the format, roles, and timeframe of the meeting. Share the agenda and relevant materials at least 24 hours in advance so participants can prepare for the meeting and if they would like, share their thoughts ahead of time.
- Name the meeting facilitator (and consider rotating the facilitator for reoccurring meetings). Assign other roles, as appropriate, such as a co-host to stand in in case of technical issues, a coordinator to take notes, and allies to hold people accountable and encourage inclusiveness.
During the Meeting
Start of Meeting
- Greet each meeting participant warmly, explain the meeting structure (e.g. round robin or hand raising), and remind participants of features (such as the chat box in Zoom).
- Set clear ground rules at the start of the meeting – codifying these helps make everyone aware of their rights and responsibilities. For example: no interrupting or talking over each other, mute yourself when not speaking, and encourage alternate perspectives.
Mediating and Facilitating
- Ensure that all participants have an equal amount of time to participate and be heard.
- Proactively give less-dominant participants the floor by asking them questions, like “Alex, would you agree with what we’ve discussed so far?” Using closed-ended questions provides an opportunity to contribute without the pressure to have a meaningful answer right away.
- If a big question arises, consider taking a few minutes for the group to put their ideas on paper before having everyone share. This gives less vocal participants time to gather their thoughts and ensures everyone’s voice will be heard.
- Look out for conversation dominators.
- If someone is controlling the dialogue, interject to redirect the conversation back to the broader group.
- If someone is interrupted, step in quickly. Use phrases like: “Before we move on, I want to hear more of what Jack has to say” or “Wait a minute – I want to make sure I understand Maria’s point before we add to it.”
- Keep in mind that dominators may not just be one person, but rather a group of allies who share commonalities, such as gender, personal interests, or job seniority.
- When someone makes a good point, acknowledge their contribution and give public attribution to their ideas.
- Be mindful of conformity bias, which occurs when people feel pressured to agree with everyone else in the room.
- Check-in following each agenda topic. Recap next steps so people have a chance to voice agreement or concerns and then solidify consensus. At the same time, assign individuals to follow up on certain tasks within a certain timeframe.
- If you notice people online drop out and come back, try to type a brief summary of what they might have missed to catch them back up.
- Ensure effective and inclusive communication practices.
- Walk through the agenda and materials as if you were only on the phone (not video) to ensure those joining via audio are not left out of the conversation.
- Provide opportunities for everyone to contribute in the way they feel most comfortable doing so:
- Speaking up during the meeting independently
- Being invited to speak up during a planned pause at the end of every discussion point
- Including text-based contributions added to the chat box of a video conference
- Allowing contributors to send first and final thoughts via email before or after a meeting takes place
Closing the Meeting
- Review key points, decisions made, and what’s still an open question to make sure everyone is on the same page, then clarify (or reiterate) the next steps and who is responsible
- Thank everyone for contributing, highlighting the value and accomplishments of the meeting
After the Meeting
- Recap the meeting with a follow up note to thank participants for attending, solicit additional and ongoing input, and reiterate key takeaways, action items, and who is responsible for what follow-up tasks and by when.
For additional reading and information: Aspen Institute, Atlassian 1, Atlassian 2, Commons Library, Forbes, Glassdoor, HBR, Lindsey Pollak, LinkedIn, Neural Shifts, Stanford University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.