10 Ways to Make Meetings More Inclusive – and Effective
This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.
Have you ever been in a meeting and realized that a knowledgeable attendee’s great ideas were being ignored while lesser ones prevailed? Or that the person struggled even to get a word in? Or was left off the invitation list entirely?
Meeting behaviors that favor certain voices and suppress, disregard, or exclude other perspectives drastically limit the quality of a group’s discussions and decisions — without people realizing it. And when set into habit, they become a pervasive waste of an organization’s time and talent.
You can be part of the solution! Here are ways to make the meetings you attend more constructive and inclusive.
1. Notice harmful patterns in meeting norms and behaviors.
This is a logical place to start. By paying conscious attention to your group’s meeting norms, you’ll be able to choose appropriate tactics for lessening or thwarting any detrimental behaviors.
Also, check in with trusted colleagues who regularly attend the same meetings you do. What do they see that you don’t and vice versa? For example, you and your fellow observers might notice unhealthy patterns like:
- Certain people with relevant knowledge and expertise don’t get invited to meetings or those without much knowledge and experience get invited anyhow.
- Vocal participants hog meeting time sharing their opinions but rarely ask questions.
- Certain participants get interrupted when trying to raise a point.
- The same people are asked to take notes and do other group tasks that aren’t part of their job description.
- Participants multitask (e.g, check their phones under the table) when certain people speak.
- The ideas of particular people often get ignored or criticized, but when restated by someone else get praised.
- Certain individuals break ground rules, like being late, but never get called out for it.
- Certain people tend to claim high-visibility seats (like next to higher-ups) or get relegated to low-visibility corners.
2. Mix up where you and/or others sit.
When meeting participants default to the same seats each time, they tend to make small talk with the same person sitting next to them, share the same ideas, and bring the same perspectives to any small-group work. And if higher-ranking people always cluster together, less powerful employees have fewer opportunities to network and share their ground-level perspectives with them.
To spur fresh thinking and new opportunities for collaboration, ask participants in meetings you lead to get up and sit next to someone they don’t generally talk to. And if you’re an attendee in someone else’s meeting, take the bold step of sitting somewhere new yourself. To explain to your usual neighbors, you could say something like:
“I’m going to change things up today to see if sitting somewhere new helps keep the meeting fresh. Would you be interested in doing the same?”
3. Bring overlooked colleagues (or at least their ideas) to the table at key moments.
It’s easy to fall into the habit of sending meeting invitations based on status or who typically attends rather than who truly has the knowledge or expertise to add value to the topic at hand. And invitation oversights can come with a price. For example, you may look back on a decision and think, If only we’d known X, this wouldn’t have happened. In many cases, someone did know X — they simply weren’t in the right place at the right time to share it.
With this in mind, when you plan or receive an invitation to an important meeting, ask yourself: Are the right people going to be in the room? Who might be missing?
If someone comes to mind but you’re not leading the meeting, you can still influence the meeting and its outcomes. Depending on your organization’s culture — as well as your relationship with the meeting’s leader — it may make sense to:
- Ask to send the better-informed subject-matter expert or colleague in your stead.
- Ask to bring the overlooked invitee along.
- Meet with the overlooked invitee ahead of time and speak on their behalf at the meeting (being sure to give proper credit for the person’s ideas).
- Share the overlooked invitee’s written materials or ideas as premeeting reading and express your interest in discussing those ideas.
- Recommend that the group follow up with the overlooked invitee and/or volunteer to do so yourself: “It seems like we’re close to a decision, but before we finalize it, could you give me until the end of the day to check in with Rhonda?”
4. Set or suggest ground rules around tech.
When people tune in to their phones or laptops, they’re tuning out whomever is speaking — unconsciously selecting to hear and value some people’s contributions over others. (If you think you have superhuman multitasking skills, sorry to break it to you, but extensive research says otherwise.) Then there’s the problem of remote participants feeling like a disregarded “fly on the wall,” as one remote employee put it to us, rather than on equal footing with on-site attendees.
So, how can you level the playing field without becoming the tech police throughout every meeting? Set ground rules before the meeting starts, agreeing on them as a group when the meeting convenes. Or, if you aren’t the meeting leader, you might suggest approaches to the meeting leader privately.
Depending on people’s expectations and preferences, you could:
- Put silenced phones in a basket when everyone walks into the meeting room (you can ask people to label them if they’re worried about losing track of whose is whose) — then build in a few phone-check breaks for meetings that exceed 30 or 50 minutes. If people protest that they have to stay connected, ask yourself: Is a meeting truly the best use of everyone’s time?
- If people’s roles require them to keep their phones and respond immediately to messages, ask participants to limit message checks to one per meeting and to move to the hallway when checking.
- For meetings with co-located and remote participants, have the people in the room bring their laptops and sign into the videoconference individually on mute (using one mic for the room) so that all participants’ faces are equal on the screens.
- Ask remote participants to wave or type an alert into the chat box when they have something to say. Additionally, build at least a few minutes into each agenda item to actively solicit remote people’s input.
Regardless of the ground rules set, make sure that the group enforces them — otherwise the meeting will be less, not more, inclusive.
5. Rotate meeting housekeeping duties.
Almost every meeting requires a certain amount of administrative work, whether it’s setting up videoconference software, getting and refilling drinks for clients, or taking notes. Who does this work in the meetings you lead and attend?
In many cases, experts say, it’s women, who then end up sacrificing their contributions for the sake of performing tasks like taking notes.
If you notice the same people taking on the housekeeping duties meeting after meeting, there’s an easy fix: Rotate those tasks. And if it’s not your meeting, jump in to suggest a more equitable process:
“Shawna dealt with getting lunch for the group last time — I’m happy to handle it today. And how about we rotate that task going forward?”
6. Set a follow-up question quota for yourself.
Nothing says “I’m listening, and I care about your perspective” like a good follow-up question. It’s a little like being a great passer in basketball. By shifting the conversation to the right people at the right moments, you elevate the level of play for everyone and set up slam-dunk ideas — whether it’s from the star player or an often-overlooked sub with the right expertise.
What about you — how often do you ask follow-up questions versus voice your own opinions? If you’re like most people, you do more opining (shooting) than asking (passing). And while it’s important to have your ideas heard, most meetings could benefit from more questions, especially for complex and/or important topics.
Becoming a good listener and questioner is admittedly hard, but well within reach. Try going into every meeting with a follow-up question quota for yourself — maybe one per meeting to start. Focus on what you genuinely think is important for the group to hear more about. Simple follow-ups are often best:
- “I’m not sure I understood the part about X — could you say more?”
- “Oh, interesting — what makes you say that?”
- “What’s an example of that?”
- “How do you see that tying in to Erik’s point about Y?”
- “What else?”
7. Ask meeting lurkers direct questions.
If someone has something important to say in a meeting, they’ll say it, right? Not necessarily. It’s possible the person is shy, or it might be something else:
- The person prefers not to interrupt others, and rapid-fire conversations provide few or no openings.
- The person figures it’s not worth speaking up because their contributions have been criticized or dismissed in the past.
- The person is participating remotely and struggling to be seen and heard from a two-dimensional screen.
While it’s not realistic to hear from every attendee on every agenda item, you can strategically wait and prompt quiet or overlooked participants to share on topics in which they have relevant expertise:
“Chantal, you worked on the Clarke project, which was pretty similar. What are your thoughts?”
Be sure to reinforce the person’s participation with a quick summary of what you heard, a follow-up question, or — if it’s a good point — a show of support to help pave the way for future participation.
8. Recognize and/or amplify valid points from the people whose views tend to get overlooked.
A bad pattern can develop when people are subtly excluded in meetings: Others unconsciously consider them less important and don’t listen to them carefully, so their good ideas go unheard or get restated later by someone else who then gets credit for them.
A single good listener — you! — can help disrupt this troubling pattern by calling attention to promising ideas (and their speakers) with a well-timed comment like:
- “I’m glad you brought that up, Hae-Won. Could we spend a few minutes talking through how that might work?”
- “Hae-Won, that’s a great idea — it would really contribute to our company mission or value X, goal Y, or strategic initiative Z.” (Connecting an idea to high-level objectives can elevate its importance in the minds of higher-ups.)
- “To build on the point Hae-Won made earlier about customer time constraints, if we factored in time, how could that impact our decision? Hae-Won, what do you think?”
- “Thanks for circling back to Hae-Won’s original idea, John — it clearly deserves more consideration.”
Stepping in also saves marginalized participants from the awkward task of repeating themselves and/or trying to take back ownership of their ideas.
9. Redirect credit that’s mistakenly or inequitably attributed.
Meetings frequently serve as a forum for distributing public praise — which can influence a person’s reputation, future opportunities, or even promotion. So, quite a bit is at stake when someone receives less than their fair share of public praise, especially if it happens repeatedly.
That said, it can come across as petty or selfish to speak up if you’re the one who’s overlooked. That’s why it’s so important for the beneficiaries of praise meant for others to speak up on their behalf:
“I’m glad to hear you found our work so helpful. To be clear: Tyrone did most of the analysis, and Elaine created the slides I used.”
And if you think you deserve more praise than others, consider: Research shows that humans are highly susceptible to responsibility bias, which causes us to believe our contributions to team outcomes are more significant than they really are. Plus, sharing credit signals leadership. It’s one of the most effective ways to win your team’s and peers’ respect.
10. Use or suggest writing prompts, lightening rounds, or smaller groups to draw out a fuller range of perspectives.
A little structure can sometimes help smooth problematic meeting dynamics, ensuring that the right people contribute when it’s critical for them to do so. For example, let’s say you’re trying to surface innovative solutions in a brainstorming meeting. Instead of just asking for ideas and hearing only from the most vocal participants, you might suggest that everyone take 10 minutes to write down their thoughts, then either paste them into a shared document or go around the room and hear from each person. This also helps guard against groupthink.
Other options: Put a time limit on people’s contributions (e.g., “How about we keep each person’s comments to less than two minutes so we can hear from more people?”) or break people into pairs or smaller groups and then have a spokesperson summarize each group’s discussion.