Inclusive meetings

We need people to disagree, to push back, to speak out…don’t we?

Diverse teams make sense; of course they do. They bring together people with very different experiences, ideas and perspectives and so (in theory at least) harness the power of diversity of thought. Most managers also know (in theory at least) how to get the best from their diverse teams – they should listen well, balance contributions, invite challenge, encourage questions – the lessons of Management 101.

So why is meeting behaviour like this so rare?

As leaders and participants of many such meetings, the women of the Dynamics of Difference research gave no holes barred accounts of the massive gulf between the many commonly accepted leadership formulae for making meetings work, and their day-to-day experiences around the meeting table or on a conference call.

Let’s put aspiration side by side with the realities they describe:

The aspiration: a level playing where everyone makes an equal (and relevant) contribution. The reality: a slightly strained and uneasy atmosphere tinged with distrust.

The aspiration: openness, flexibility and appreciation of diverse perspectives. The reality: impatience and irritation with the contribution styles of anyone not schooled in the norms of Anglo-American meeting dynamics.

The aspiration: well balanced speaking and listening from everyone at the table. The reality: two or three participants do most of the speaking (and all of the challenging) becoming more visible, noticed, promoted. The rest say nothing.

As often as not such meeting dynamics migrate to the poles. At one side there is the lively debate and discussion of two or three participants (while the rest watch), and at the other is the slow, dull drawn out contributions which feels more like pulling teeth than exchanging views – the first an exercise in exclusion, the second an inclusive soggy compromise.

Can we not have meetings which are inclusive and interesting? Diversity is not dull – so why are these dynamics so hard to shift?

One answer lies in our misplaced faith that all the moves in our conversational behaviour are intentional; that as individuals we are completely in control of our contributions. In fact, many of our interactions are down to conversational routines which in subtle but solid ways, shape and constrain what we can say, and how and when we can say it.

Ana, an experienced management consultant from Spain puts it this way, “The meetings are all very similar. Usually the lead is taken by the main managers who are used to working with one another and the interaction between them has been built up over many meetings. In these cases it is very difficult to participate, even to share an opinion or ask anything. In my experience most management teams are like this. They know each other well and they interact in a way which doesn’t invite contribution. They are mostly men and they have certain patterns of talk. It seems as if they have an informal agreement on how to proceed. If you raise your hand to speak, everyone looks at you as if to say, “It’s not your place to speak’’ .

And this is no easier even if you are formally in charge. Glenda, who manages a long established global IT team admits she doesn’t know how to shift the dynamics of their interaction. In one two hour call connecting 12 people, Kitty from Hong Kong said a total of 10 words. And of course, there is nothing wrong with Kitty beyond following her own cultural conventions which govern speaking and respect. While the six team members who controlled 85% of the talk time are not deliberately dominating the discussion; they are simply filling the space. Meeting patterns are rather more rigid than we like to imagine; and we recognise, respond and reproduce such patterns because they guide us in ways of which we are only vaguely aware.

Where does this leave our diverse meeting?

We are back to “The firework display” (colourful, noisy explosions in an island of silence) and “The low grey sky” (everyone says their piece but it is dull and grey and boring). In both, the quality of thinking is not diverse – it’s diminished. Instead what we need is a glorious multi-hued sunset – but to get it, we need more push back, more challenge and better questions. And unfortunately it is it never enough to say, “Go ahead and challenge me.”

Instead we need to nudge the structure of the meeting, and not try to fix the people. To increase the push-back and challenge meeting participants need legitimacy. If you are leading the meeting, you have to take responsibility for tackling this legitimacy by making it tangible, visible and safe.

Try this out in your next face-to-face meeting. Lay your hands on some small building bricks, or counters, or paper clips – anything to hand that isn’t poisonous or sharp – and ask everyone to take three to use as questions, challenges or opinions. They get to choose. And whenever they want to, they simply play their “brick” and say:

I have a question” or

I’d like to challenge that” or

I have an opinion about that”.

Everyone gets to play all three…but no more.

This exercise requires courage. Pushing back is not easy. For women it evokes the double bind of judgement where behaviour deemed appropriate for being boldly present, is also culturally coded as masculine.  For people whose cultures equate challenge with disrespect, it is painfully difficult to be different. And for those who tend to dominate interaction, the respite can be very insightful.

Changing a pattern is a bold move for everyone. Small things make a big difference when it comes to conversation. It is very easy to lose your nerve or to get distracted by everything else that’s going on so that you lose sight of where you are going. When you have decided to push back, choose your moment, keep your eye on that thin line of horizon – and speak your mind.

Inclusive meetings are not for the fainthearted.


Image:  Fernando Oyón

7 thoughts on “Inclusive meetings”

  1. Lovely and very interesting meeting yesterday in Lisbon. Thanks for making us (re)think in so many hot topics as Gender, Power and Communication/Linguistics!


  2. Anne, thank you so much for making us take some time to think about these topics. For sure a very useful and interesting research! It was great to meet you here in Lisbon!


    1. Thank you to you Susana, and to your colleagues for such interesting and stimulating conversations about inclusive leadership.


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