Like it or not, most business is conducted during some sort of meeting—virtual or live, small or large—and meetings aren’t always inclusive spaces. In fact, they can sometimes be downright exclusive, and that exclusivity can unfortunately not just influence decisions and outcomes but also negatively impact morale and team cohesion. Just like high school, meetings can be impacted by a hierarchy of sorts. At the top are those who clearly feel included because they tend to be more heard, valued and influential while those at the bottom tend to have less impact and oftentimes feel less included in the discussion or decision process.
A range of factors might impact who feels included and who doesn’t. These factors could include overt, front of mind DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) elements like race, cultural background and gender, but other qualities like age, tenure, academic background, salary grade and personality/extroversion level can also impact whether someone feels included and valued. The good news is that if you’re intentional, there are clear strategies that leaders or any meeting participant can use to make meetings more inclusive.
For those team members who don’t feel like they’re part of the “cool kids’ table” in the meeting, it can be more difficult to build relationships. Oftentimes, there is pre-meeting banter that they’re simply not part of which can painfully highlight the fact that the space doesn’t feel inclusive. One small way to help everyone build stronger relationships is by incorporating tiny relationship building elements into standard agenda items, like introductions. Instead of asking each person to just share their name and title, ask them to also share an interesting fact that might reveal unexpected areas of commonality or connection. Consider prompt questions like these:
– What was your first paid job?
– What is something on your bucket list?
– What is your proudest personal achievement?
– What was your favorite band, singer or television show growing up?
– What is an interesting fact that no one on the team knows about you?
Use A Round Robin Style Approach To Encourage Balanced Input
Too many meetings are dominated by the loudest, most extraverted voices in the room, but unfortunately just because someone is loud—or even persistent—doesn’t mean that they’re right or that their perspective is shared by others. This is a key reason why it’s important to use practical techniques to encourage more balanced participation. One great way to do just that is to avoid the reflexive impulse to allow free-for-all discussion on all topics and instead selectively use a more structured (round robin style) process to ensure everyone is heard. With this process the leader (or facilitator) would go “around the table” (either literally or virtually) asking each person to offer brief feedback on the topic at hand. Obviously, this wouldn’t be practical for large meetings, but as long as the group is small to mid-sized, it can be a powerful tool.
Ask Participants To Document Ideas Before Speaking
This is another great technique that can create a more level playing field for meeting contributions. Before discussing an important topic, ask each attendee to simply write down their points. For example, if the meeting goal is to identify ways to improve customer satisfaction (or reduce costs/defects, etc.), give each participant a sticky pad and ask them to write down their top 2-3 ideas (or if the meeting is virtual, ask them to write it in the chat). This only takes a couple minutes, but it provides a way for everyone to contribute equally. It also creates a space for participants to form their own, independent ideas without being impacted by others’ views. Once participants have jotted down their own ideas, each person can share one of their ideas verbally. Even if the group opts to have a more free-wheeling open discussion at that point, the leader can gather/document everyone’s ideas for consideration.
Close The Meeting With Peer Kudos
One great way to build team cohesion and inclusiveness is by encouraging meeting participants to acknowledge others’ ideas. While quieter participants may not speak as much, they may have profound ideas, and they should be acknowledged. While those who dominate discussions receive a type of validation through the process of contributing and being heard (e.g. quantity of contribution), this practice recognizes quality of contribution as well by encouraging acknowledgement of the most interesting and innovative ideas. Indeed, peer recognition can be a powerful way to not just reward contributions real time but also provide building blocks for relationship building within the team.
Meetings can be powerful tools that don’t just help teams get things done. They also help define organizational culture and can create opportunities for real connection. While some may leave meetings feeling energized, validated and supported, others may leave feeling ignored, minimized and devalued. Indeed, inclusive leaders will not just care about what gets accomplished but also how it gets done.