Run inclusive meetings

30 September, 2019

By welcoming a diversity of viewpoints, you can create a sense of belonging as well as improve team performance.

Whether you love them or hate them, meetings play a vital role at the workplace.

As Kathryn Heath and Brenda F. Wensil mention in their Harvard Business Review article, To Build an Inclusive Culture, Start with Inclusive Meetings:

Meetings matter. They are the forum where people come together to discuss ideas, make decisions, and be heard. Meetings are where culture forms, grows, and takes hold. So it stands to reason that if an organization desires a more inclusive culture – and leaders want to model inclusion – then meetings are the place to start.

At Godrej, we have been making a concerted effort towards day-to-day inclusivity, which goes beyond diversity.

What’s the difference?

To put it simply, diversity may get you a seat at the table but inclusion is what gives you a voice at the table. When people feel a sense of true belonging, they trust each another and deliver their best work.

Without genuine inclusion, diversity is a hollow shell – it might look good but there isn’t much substance to it. For example, studies show that women executives are far more likely to be interrupted and have their viewpoint sidelined during group dialogues, which in turn makes them more hesitant to speak up.

Therefore, diversity is not sufficient. We need to strive for inclusion. For example, studies show that women executives are far more likely to be interrupted and have their viewpoint side lined during group dialogues, which in turn makes them more hesitant to speak up. The same goes for other, less dominant groups at the workplace. According to one study by Harvard Business Review, only 35 percent of employees feel consistently comfortable contributing in meetings.

While some meetings get taken over by powerful social groups, others are dominated by an alpha individual – someone who’s loud, bossy and loves to talk. In yet other situations, the “in-crowd” (formed on the basis of common interests or personal relationships) takes up most of the talk-time and supports only one other’s ideas. In all of these situations, the dominant person or group drowns out differing perspectives. Various biases also skew the dynamic, such as the belief that the smartest people are also the quickest to speak up, which ignores the thoughtful opinions offered by introverts.

Instead of allowing meetings to perpetuate these imbalances, leaders can utilise these group forums to demonstrate inclusive behaviours and set the tone for the company’s broader culture. So, this week, my message focuses on how leaders can run more inclusive meetings. What tangible steps can you take to ensure that everyone gets a seat and a voice at the table?

So far, your focus has probably been on effectiveness and time management rather than inclusion, which demands a somewhat different approach. Here are six ways to make your meetings more inclusive:

1. Set the stage

In the HBR article mentioned above, Heath and Wensil highlight some advice from Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering. Even before your meeting begins, you can take certain steps to create the right mindset:

This could be as simple as sending a pre-meeting email to attendees, and inviting people to come “ready to share as well as listen.” It may sound like a little thing you can delegate to another employee, but in our everyday work, we hear loud and clear that leaders are in the best position to make people feel safe in this kind of setting.

Priya also suggests leaders demonstrate what she calls “gracious authority”- a polite demeanor that nonetheless leaves little doubt about who is in charge. To set the tone, welcome people by name as they enter the meeting room, and make sure the seating accommodates everyone.

Send out a detailed agenda and prep materials at least a day in advance. Late night or early morning pre-reads may not be possible for working parents, putting them at a disadvantage. The lead time also gives introverts a chance to process the information in a quiet setting. Another suggestion is to double-check your list of attendees. Have you included people who can offer dissenting viewpoints or unique perspectives? At the same time, it’s important to limit your meeting invites. The Atlassian playbook on running inclusive meetings explains:

The more people present, the harder for everyone to contribute. The agenda should help invitees ascertain whether they need to be at this meeting. Ensure invitees understand that if they aren’t directly involved or don’t feel they have something to contribute, they should decline the invite (and if necessary, direct you to anyone else who should be there). 

2. Set ground rules

While certain notions might seem very obvious in your mind, they may not be quite so evident to your team members. Ask yourself: when is the last time you clearly laid out the behaviours you expect from your team members during group discussions? By clearly laying out the rules, you make sure that each team member is familiar with their rights and responsibilities. Plus, leaders must also model these same behaviours. For example, it’s useless asking other people to welcome dissent if you turn defensive and angry every time an idea of yours is questioned or criticised.

3. Enforce the rules

It’s not enough to simply clarify expectations – as a leader, you need to play the role of enforcer and mediator to create space for all voices to be heard and valued. Heath and Wensile offer leaders the following advice:

Watch closely for dominators and interrupters. If someone tries to control the dialogue, interject and redirect the conversation back to the broader group. If someone is interrupted, step in quickly. You might say, “Wait a minute, I want to hear more of what Janice has to say,” or “Back up. I am intrigued with what Luke was telling us. Luke, can you finish your thought?”

Give credit to team members who bring up good ideas and don’t let them get hijacked by those who are louder. The physical setting of the room plays a vital role here, so ensure that everyone is spread out and can be seen and heard. Avoid messy clusters at one end of the table and “overflow” chairs at the back of the room.

4. Check the imbalance

Think about the last 10-15 meetings you’ve had. Have most presentations been given by people in the same location or sub-group? Do 1-2 team members always take the lead in discussions? Shaking things up will help you make way for a greater diversity of voices. For example, why not ask a different group or location to give the next presentation, or assign a quiet team member to run the next session? If possible, offer them leeway to change the format of the meeting; you might see some very interesting possibilities emerge! Another trick to address imbalance is to give dominant personalities responsibilities like keeping minutes, thereby forcing them to listen more actively instead of speaking.

5. Bring remote into the fold

Take special note of your remote attendees, who tend to get overlooked while you’re deciding on details such as meeting time, tasks, etc. – out of sight, out of mind. As a leader, it falls to you to make sure these “invisible” team members are also given the opportunity to get fully involved and contribute. During calls, check whether remote participants are able to follow the discussion.

6. Pause for introverts

Introverts have lots to say but can often languish in silence due to the breathless pace of discussion. When inviting comments or questions, give an extra 15-20 seconds of silence, so your more introverted team members have a chance to speak up. Similarly, when asking key questions, allow the group a couple of minutes to gather and jot down their thoughts, then go around the circle to share views. In How To Lead Inclusive Meetings, Rebekah Bastian explains how to give the floor to introverts without overwhelming them:

It’s important to do this in an inclusive way though-creating a space for voices to be heard without making a person feel called out-as speaking up can be terrifying for some people. This can be done by letting a quiet person know ahead of time that they will be asked for their thoughts during a meeting so that they can mentally prepare.

In the Atlassian playbook mentioned above, the author also recommends following up after the meeting:

Proactively solicit ideas that might’ve come to mind after the meeting. To produce their best work, introverts need time alone to process new information. For example, send out a message along the lines of: “Anyone have a new insight about this situation since we met? If so, I’d love to hear it.”


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