Inclusive meetings

Leading a meeting where everyone feels that they are heard and able to contribute their best

Ever been in a meeting where there was some interesting power play going on? Or where the usual people dominated the airtime or dominated the agenda? Or where the meeting seemed a smokescreen for a slightly different agenda?

Those kinds of meetings are exhausting because they require us to spend more time playing politics, trying to be heard, or even trying not to be attacked, than focusing on the actual subject matter in hand. And it goes without saying that the outcomes and decisions that are made – if they’re made – are sub optimal.

Meetings that build, explore and challenge in a way that moves the debate forward (rather than to score points) bring out the best contributions, are more creative and produce better results that people then go on to implement.

But meetings where challenge is done for other reasons can indicate that there is an inequality of power, and that it’s being exploited. The inclusivity alarm bell should ring. What can you do to help turn things around?

Nothing beats a little investigative work which you can do while the meeting is taking place (continue to contribute but allow yourself to dual process and observe what’s going on):

  • How is the air time divided up between participants?
  • What are the ‘norms’ in how a meeting kicks off? For example who typically speaks first, who objects, who jokes, who is quieter initially but is then listened to as a credible contributor? What patterns do you observe that often get repeated?
  • Who finds it difficult to get their voice into the meeting?
  • Who finds it difficult to be heard or put their point across?
  • Who is more regularly spoken over by others?
  • Whose ideas are often attributed to someone else?
  • Who tends to be the butt of people’s jokes – either in the room or outside the room?
  • If it’s a meeting with some/all participants participating virtually, what’s the pattern of the side-chat away from the microphone or camera?

As you observe these dynamics, try to figure out who the dominant group is, and who’s in the out-group as these people typically have less access to power and can be easily marginalised.

Out-groups may be women or ethnic minorities or people from a certain function or discipline or those with less qualifications or …. Most organisations or departments have a out-group, and it needs to be everyone’s responsibility to make sure that those individuals are included as equals with everyone else.

Tips for making sure that people in an out-group get to contribute to their best:

  1. Get everyone’s voice in the room early. If someone hasn’t made a comment and early speakers are starting to get a second ‘turn’ in the discussion, focus a question to the person who’s not yet spoken: ‘Caroline, we’ve not heard from you yet, what’s your view?’
  2. As the meeting progresses, continue to focus a question on those who are contributing less. Over time, others will notice and some may begin to take on the role to include those who aren’t having a voice too. Enlisting some progressive individuals from the dominant group ahead of the meeting or before the next one sends a strong signal about new norms.
  3. Note who suggests an idea and if it gets attributed to someone else, point it out: ‘I think it was Jo who suggested that earlier actually’. You may be surprised how much you need to do this!
  4. If someone gets spoken over and isn’t able to continue in order to get their point across, support them: ‘Sally, do you want to continue what you were saying?’

These are all basic points. But we’ve found that it’s often the basics that really matter. This isn’t a one-time effort because these interventions need to be done regularly and consistently over time. Once the interventions lapse, the old behaviours will quickly return. The leader of the meeting needs to be committed to creating an inclusive culture and having supporters around the table to reinforce and spot new patterns is just as important.

A little clichéd as it might sound, a group or team charter that spells out expected behaviour as we’ve noted here, is a helpful touchstone and a neutral tool to help everyone take responsibility for creating inclusive meetings.