When asked to describe how they feel about meetings, many professionals will use the same language: “boring,” “inefficient,” and “unproductive.” While these descriptors may ring true for some, they do not ring true for all. For some, meetings aren’t boring—they’re stressful. They aren’t inefficient—they’re isolating. They aren’t unproductive—they’re confusing.
If you are joining a meeting where people are different from you, whether in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, ability, religion, age, language proficiency, socioeconomic background, education, degree of introversion, level of seniority, or other characteristics, then your identity can influence not only how others see you, but also how you see yourself.
What if you are an introvert among extroverts; a woman within a male-dominated work environment; a non-native English speaker among native speakers? There are even less-obvious distinctions that can set you apart, like being someone who didn’t get hired from a “target” school or failing to find common ground with your coworkers in terms of life experience.
The self-doubt and imposter syndrome can be paralyzing. Unspoken rules and hidden expectations only make meetings more challenging to navigate.
What is my unspoken role in this meeting—to be seen and heard, seen but not heard, or neither?
What do I do if my point of view differs from the highest-ranking person, loudest talker, or lengthiest rambler?
Should I take action after this meeting to step up—and risk backing myself into doing non-promotable “office housework”? If I lie low will I risk coming across as uncommitted?
When your mind is filled with this internal dialogue, you will likely feel stress, isolation, and confusion. And then you may get the feeling that all coworkers see and judge you by is your silent disengagement.
Meetings are not a level playing field, but there are ways to make them more comfortable for everyone. Here are five “non-norm” norms to improve your meetings’ equity and resulting productivity.
Agendas and meeting objectives
It’s hard to establish a level playing field if only the most experienced or well-connected people have the necessary background knowledge. It’s hard to rein in the tangents if no one knows what the topic was to begin with. Picture what success looks like at the end of the meeting, then work backward: What decisions do you want to have made? What topics do you want to have discussed? What information do people need to have coming into the meeting? A short email with a few attachments and bullet points is all it takes to give everyone a fair start and to keep everyone on task.
You are unlikely to unlock your team’s most original ideas if you don’t give people time to process, unhindered by the influence of others. Consider sharing questions ahead of time and asking everyone to come with reactions prepared. If a discussion arises during the meeting, consider pausing and giving everyone a moment to write down their own thoughts. Otherwise, you will only hear from the most confident person—followed by a few people’s gut reactions to that person’s fast thinking.
You aren’t making the most of every brain in the room if two people are crowding out the other eight. And you definitely won’t hear from everyone if the women or people of color are always the ones taking notes. Rather than asking “What do you think?” and letting a few voices hijack the discussion, consider taking turns, giving everyone the option—and time—to speak or pass. Do the same with note-taking roles: Rather than wait for a woman to volunteer (or be “voluntold”), establish a rotation. Otherwise, you might as well just ask the most extroverted or senior man for their opinion.
Just because everyone says “sure” doesn’t mean you’ve secured everyone’s buy-in. Avoid asking “Who’s in?” and then waiting for those who lack the seniority, confidence, or reputation to succumb to the peer pressure and raise their hand too. Instead, consider administering an anonymous poll, whether over Zoom, via Google Docs, or, if in person, by having everyone put their heads down and raise their hands. Otherwise, you risk always deferring to the most senior person or loudest person.
Restaurant waitstaff are trained to repeat back orders to avoid relaying the wrong message to the kitchen. Airline pilots are trained to repeat back instructions from the air traffic control tower to avoid making the wrong maneuvers. This practice is just as relevant for the office where “sure” can mean “yes” in some settings but “no” in others, or where “We’ll figure it out” can mean “You’ll figure it out.” Before ending meetings, clarify who will do what and by when. Consider even having each person repeat back their own next steps to make sure that what people heard is consistent with what was said.
The options I’ve laid out require increased time and effort, but the clear choice is either you spend more time being deliberate as a meeting organizer, or waste your entire group’s time. Remember that just because someone isn’t speaking up doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say. It may be that they don’t feel like they are being offered the opportunity or safe space to share their point of view. Showing more deliberate actions with meetings makes the team more inclusive, collaborative, and—in turn—productive.
Gorick Ng is a career adviser at Harvard College, specializing in coaching first-generation, low-income students and professionals. He has worked in management consulting at Boston Consulting Group and is a researcher with the Managing the Future of Work project at Harvard Business School. His first book, The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, will be released in April 2021.