If your meetings are like most, there are two or three people who always speak up and a handful of others who hang on the sidelines. You could write that off as just a matter of differing personalities, or you could see it for what it is: a drag on your meetings' productivity.
Here's the thing, though. For all the advice out there about how to improve meetings—by making them shorter, more efficient, more useful, and more memorable—there's one thing that's usually left out: Inclusivity. Your meetings may not be very productive because they simply aren't all that inclusive.
A growing number of companies are investing in hiring diverse workforces and designing inclusive cultures. And that's good. But what isn't always happening, even where those efforts are gaining steam, is a rethinking of the basic dynamics of meetings and team communication. That's a problem.
Meetings are often where hard decisions are made, where innovative ideas are shared, and where important deals are done. But without designing and running meetings more thoughtfully, organizations are limiting themselves from taking advantage of the diverse perspectives they're trying to acquire through hiring. It's not enough just to bring a more diverse workforce in through your doors. You need to get everybody talking—meaningfully, collaboratively, and regularly—in order to make it all worthwhile from a business standpoint.
Research suggests, for example, that women are still more likely than men to be interrupted in meetings. So on teams where only interrupters get their ideas heard, women’s perspectives may get tamped down.
And imagine someone from a cultural background where interruption is outside the norm being thrown into a team full of interrupters: They might never have the chance to speak. In addition, natural introverts may be less likely to speak up in meetings but are just as likely to have great ideas, bringing thoughtful, observant, and necessary perspectives with them.
If your team prioritizes the loudest voice in the room or requires people to cut in to share their thoughts (consciously or not), you may be missing out on the ideas of many of your best team members who simply don't operate that way. Yet it may be those very people who excel at testing the strength of ideas, causing others to think more analytically, and ultimately leading the way to better decisions.
For teams that want to benefit from all the perspectives they've worked hard to bring into a room together—and to limit groupthink and achieve the best outcomes—here are a few strategies to try.
Designating someone to watch for interruptions and ensure everyone has a chance to contribute can help keep meetings on track. Meeting moderators should do a few things:
1. Remind the group at the outset how important it is to hear from everyone who may want to contribute, and note that everyone should make efforts to hear each other out and limit interruptions. For example, at the start of each meeting the moderator could say, "Everyone is here because they may have important ideas, so let’s be sure to give everyone the time and space to contribute."
2. Specifically ask those who haven’t spoken yet if they have anything they’d like to add.
3. Point out when someone is interrupted, or when one participant repeats an idea someone else has already shared. Having a scripted approach for this can be helpful.
For example, "Hey Alicia, we’d love to hear what you have to say, but I want to make sure we get the rest of Sam’s thought first." Or after the interrupter is done, the moderator can return the floor to the person who was interrupted: "Sam, did you have additional thoughts you wanted to share?"
To attribute ideas, the moderator could say, "Jaime, I’m glad you’re bringing that up again. I thought it was a great idea when Alex shared it earlier, and I’m really glad we’re coming back to it."
The way you design meetings can either encourage or limit participation. Whether or not you assign specific tasks to a moderator, here are two strategies for structuring meetings that set everyone up for success:
- Circulate agendas prior to meetings so that people who prefer to can prepare their thoughts beforehand. This can be especially helpful for introverts.
- After a discussion, consider going around the room and giving each participant a moment to add anything they didn’t get to share. For those who may not want to interrupt or speak louder than others, this can make it easier to contribute.
Meetings tend to tacitly encourage one type of communication, and even the most inclusive meetings may not solicit everyone’s best ideas as a result. So wherever it's feasible, consider allowing people to share additional thoughts in writing, either during or after a meeting. Here are a few straightforward ways to do that:
1. Hand out sticky notes and offer everyone a few minutes to think and jot down their thoughts before the meeting starts. The moderator can then collect all of the notes and read them aloud, which is a great way for everyone’s ideas to be heard without people having to compete for airtime.
2. Use a Google Doc or Slack channel to gather any unshared thoughts after a meeting, instead of saying, "Okay great, see you same time next week!" This allows those who are quieter, who spend a bit more time processing their ideas, or who just weren’t able to get heard, to share their ideas.
Creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable speaking up and participating is critical, but even the most well-intentioned companies tend to fall short. Many just aren't used to being as thoughtful about meetings as they could be. As we become better at championing and talking about diversity, we should be sure that discussion includes a focus on the ways we communicate in the workplace—and meetings are a great place to start.
Aleah Warren is managing consultant at Paradigm, a strategy firm that partners with innovative companies to build stronger, more inclusive organizations.