In the ideal meeting, all attendees participate, contributing diverse points of view and thinking together to reach new insights. But few meetings live up to this ideal, in large part because not everyone is able to effectively contribute. We recently asked employees at a large global bank a question: “When you have a contribution to make in a meeting, how often are you able to do so?” Only 35% said they felt able to make a contribution all the time.
There are three segments of the workforce who are routinely overlooked: introverts, remote workers, and women. As a leader, chances are you’re not actively silencing these voices — it’s more likely that hidden biases at play. Let’s look at these biases and what you can do to mitigate their influence.
Segment 1: The quiet ones
The unconscious bias: Smart people think on their feet.
What happens: A program manager calls a meeting to think through a resourcing issue. She summarizes the situation, shares results of a recent staffing analysis, and then tees up the discussion. This works great for extroverted thinkers (those that talk to think). But from the get-go, the introverted thinkers (those who think to talk) are at a disadvantage.
Extroverted thinkers are happy to get new information in a meeting and to start making sense of it by talking through it. But introverted thinkers make their best contributions when they’ve had time to process relevant data and space to choose words carefully and share thoughtful conclusions. So while the extroverted thinkers are buzzing away, the introverted thinkers are quiet, still processing the information. Extroverts often misinterpret this silence as disagreement, disengagement, or lack of subject matter expertise, and often don’t make the effort to bring the introverts into the conversation. The meeting ends, people scatter to their next meeting, and the opportunity to think the problem through together has been lost. Over time, the introverts may get demoralized and completely disengage because of their inability to contribute.
How to overcome this bias:
- Before the meeting: Share the purpose of the meeting, provide any relevant data ahead of time, and list the specific discussion questions you plan to cover.
- During: Proactively give introverted thinkers the floor with questions like, “Janet, from the discussion so far, what really stands out for you?” or “Akshay, what do you think we should be considering that we haven’t yet covered?”
- After: Circulate a meeting summary and proactively solicit ideas that might’ve come to mind after the meeting. You can close your email with something like, “Anyone have a new insight about this situation since we met? If so, I’d love to hear it.”
Segment 2: The remote team members
The unconscious bias: Out of sight, out of mind.
What happens: Conference calls can be notoriously unproductive, which has been hilariously spoofed and mocked. The large global bank I referred to at the beginning of this article has a small but strategic team located in Singapore. Although they often attend meetings via conference call, they routinely have a hard time making a contribution. Their feedback on our survey reflects this: “It’s very hard to get into the conversation if you are on the conference line” and “Meetings should be more considerate and inclusive of those on the phone.” The company’s growth strategy hinges on this small outpost, yet the team there is regularly excluded during meetings.
Overcoming the bias:
- Before the meeting: Circulate the meeting purpose, objectives, and materials so those on the phone can follow along. Arrange the meeting using virtual meeting technology, such as Skype for Business, WebEx, or GoToMeeting, which will allow remote participants to follow in real time what’s happening. Consider assigning someone the responsibility of keeping the virtual team members engaged throughout the meeting
- During: If video conferencing is an option, use it. If you’re using virtual meeting technology, ask remote participants to use the chat feature to let the group know when they want to jump in. When they do raise their virtual hand, give them the floor. Regularly stop and check that the virtual participants are able to hear, follow the dialogue, and make contributions.
- After: Circulate a short, precise follow-up note that captures the key insights, decisions, and actions.
Segment 3: The women in the room
The unconscious bias: Men have more to contribute.
What happens: Multiple studies have reached the same conclusion: Women are far more likely to be interrupted in meetings, and their ideas are taken less seriously. It’s so common that some researchers have created a taxonomy to explain everything from “manterrupting” (a man unnecessarily interrupting a woman) to “mansplaining” (a man interrupting a woman to explain something that she actually knows more about than he does) to “bropropriating” (a man taking credit for a woman’s idea).
Overcoming the bias:
- Reframe the conversation: This problem is a business performance issue, not a “women’s issue.” Both men and women have a vested interest in overcoming the bias. Enlist progressive men to lead by example, and hold them accountable for making space for their female counterparts to contribute.
- Balance the playing field with ground rules such as “no talking over each other” or going around the table when you’re seeking input on a critical decision.
- Foster a culture in which men and women alike are encouraged to “call it out” when they see someone being inadvertently silenced in a discussion.
- Take the worst offenders aside and point out their behavior — they may be unaware of it.
Most meetings have obvious flaws, but these three biases in particular undermine high-quality dialogue. By overcoming the biases, organizations can elevate their collective thinking, giving them a much greater chance of realizing the full potential of their entire workforce — not just the few who are able to easily make their voices heard.