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Are Your Meetings Inclusive? If Not, You May Be Paying a Price

Have you ever been in a meeting, and noticed one or two people were dominating the discussion? Did you want to contribute, but felt you could not get a word in – or worse yet, your voice would not be heard if you did?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. In the meeting world, it’s easy to feel bulldozed – completely run over by someone, or a small group, who completely monopolize the time and direction of the meeting. While this might be fine for some types of meetings such as update meetings, it’s usually just the mark of a miserable meeting. And for many meetings such as brainstorming meetings, where there is room for discussion, there needs to be governance in place to ensure all voices are heard – especially those that may not be heard as often as others.

By fostering a meeting environment where all participants can contribute, not only will you find yourself with more innovative ideas, but you will avoid unnecessary and costly blind spots that can occur when traditionally marginalized voices like women, POC, or disabled attendees don’t feel they can add to the conversation. Or, perhaps, it’s simply that junior employees aren’t being heard. This can lead to important perspectives being left out of decision-making processes.

What happens when certain groups monopolize meetings?

A group's decision is more likely to reflect the suggestions and opinions of high participators. Empirical results are consistent with this claim; participation and influence are highly linked (Bottger, 1984; Hoffman, Burke, & Maie Jr, 1965; Riecken, 1958). The ultimate decision resulting from a brainstorming meeting is reflective of the opinions of high participators.

But who are these “high participators”? “High participators” are those perceived high in status (such as bosses or bulldozers – or simply those who consider themselves as high status). Those low in status (perceived – those with lower job titles or outnumbered in gender or race) participate less and, in turn, carry less influence during the decision-making process.

This imbalance of perceived statuses is a huge problem.

These perceptions of imbalanced statuses can spell out disaster when it comes to making clear-headed group decisions.

If you have consistent bulldozers, you may be missing valuable insights. It’s important while we move society forward, we start in our workplaces and understand that providing a forum for all team members is not only the right thing to do but also pertinent to a diverse workforce that caters to diverse clients’ needs.

So ... what's missing in these meetings?

Meetings, in some sense, represent a microcosm of larger issues in society. Those who monopolize meetings are likely the same kind of personalities or types of people who may overrun conversations in other parts of their lives, controlling larger narratives. What’s lacking in these one-sided interactions? Inclusivity.

Being “inclusive” and “inclusivity” have been thrown around as buzz words quite a bit, especially when it comes to the workplace. But what do these words mean, especially in a meeting sense?

Inclusivity, in its simplest form, refers to celebrating differences in each person (diversity) and making it the norm to make everyone feel welcome and listening to, implementing, and seeing the value in varying viewpoints. And these celebrated differences can pay off big time when making organizational decisions.

Research finds groups with equalized participation make better-quality decisions because each member's unique perspective is brought to the problem-solving table. Diverse perspectives and innovative ideas are crucial to brainstorming and idea-generating. The contributions of minority groups come at an extreme value - but are at risk of being silenced in meetings.

This reflects the concept of meeting inclusion, or how participative your meetings are. Research also consistently finds that there is often unequal participation in brainstorming and idea-generating meetings, especially in countries like the United States. Minority groups tend to speak less during group discussions, with majority groups frequently holding the floor.

There’s even an academic theory for this phenomenon. It’s called the Expectation States Theory, and it suggests differences in expectations related to status lead participants to acquire and allocate speaking turns differentially, with those perceived as high in status taking more opportunities to speak than those perceived as low in status. Both minority groups and more junior team members are generally considered low-status actors (thus, speak less frequently in meetings).

So, a lot of it has to do with what status we perceive ourselves and others as. What can be done about this?

How do we foster more inclusion in meetings?

For different types of meetings (virtual, in-person, hybrid) there are different approaches that can be taken to ensure inclusion in meetings.

For example, virtual meetings may provide a unique opportunity to promote meeting participation and inclusion – above and beyond in-person meetings.

Let’s chat about chat:

The chat feature provides a channel for team members to contribute to the conversation throughout the meeting – without interrupting the speaker or ‘taking the floor’ – which may naturally be uncomfortable for these team members.

Self-perceived low-status actors (e.g., minority groups, members lower in organizational rank) can use the chat function to voice/participate during the meeting. Additionally, chat allows for more voices to be heard simultaneously without verbal interruption.

When transitioning to in-person or hybrid brainstorming meetings, be mindful of meeting inclusion. Be creative as you consider ways to increase meeting participation in these rich, idea-generating meetings. Bring the benefits of chat to the face-to-face context.

Perhaps you incorporate silent brainstorming, where team members sit around the room and silently brainstorm ideas for ten minutes. Then, all participants take turns and share ideas. You could also have a whiteboard in the room, and team members are encouraged to go up to the board and jot down ideas, questions, etc. throughout the meeting – without interrupting the speaker. These practices emulate the virtual chat feature, encouraging the same inclusivity in a face-to-face setting. If you are running a hybrid meeting, there could be a digital space for remote workers to jot down meeting notes while in-person attendees work on a whiteboard or in a physical notebook.

Remember to include an agenda that schedules time for these brainstorming sessions and allows participants to mentally prepare for these “loose” brainstorms. Send the agenda out ahead of time to alleviate any anxiety attendees might feel, especially for typically low-participators. It’s important to let your team members get in a creative mindset ahead of time so they can freely let their inventive ideas flow during the meeting itself.

Use a Meeting Management Solution

One of the best ways to ensure everyone’s voice is heard is to join the thousands of companies already using meeting solution software. For example, Decisions meeting software is a great tool for fostering inclusivity in your company’s meeting culture. You can build structured agendas that allow a specific time for silent brainstorming or assign speakers ahead of time so everyone gets a chance to talk (and know they will be speaking beforehand to mitigate their anxiety!). Agendas can be sent out digitally in advance so everyone is on the same page and meeting minutes, notes, tasks assigned, and decisions made in the meeting can be downloaded into a single PDF and sent to meeting attendees afterward, ensuring everyone is on the same page.

In the spirit of inclusion, if the meeting admin grants access, Decisions’ meeting attendees can suggest agenda items beforehand – letting their superiors or perceived high-status workmates know what is important to them before the meeting even starts.

Additionally, with Decisions’ new Meeting Feedback Score, meeting participants can anonymously rate the meetings they attend, providing valuable feedback to meeting leaders without any awkward confrontation. The meeting leaders can use this feedback to adjust how they run their meetings, creating a more inclusive space for all.

The Bottom Line

Meeting inclusion matters. More equal participation in brainstorming meetings results in higher quantity and greater quality ideas and decisions. Plus, attendees feel more valued, respected, and appreciated when they feel they have contributed to the decision-making process.

As a meeting leader, do what you can to ensure all voices are encouraged, heard, and considered in your brainstorming sessions.

Download Decisions Meeting Software to create structured agendas, schedule time for discussions, and help all of your team members be heard. 



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