How to Run Inclusive Meetings
How to Run Inclusive Meetings

How to Run Inclusive Meetings

Leadership Development, Diversity Equity & Inclusion   — 4 MIN


When it comes to meetings, we want the most bang for our buck. Especially today when plates feel extra full, no one wants to waste time or energy on meandering discussions that don’t get the job done. And an important part of keeping meetings productive and efficient is being inclusive. Not only is inclusivity an absolute must for employee morale and a healthy workplace culture, it’s also a major driver of innovation.

Meetings are mini work cultures in and of themselves, with people of different backgrounds coming together to have discussions and make decisions. It’s important that all races, genders, identities, cultures, and generations are represented and heard at your meetings.

To make the most out of meetings and focus on inclusivity, keep these tips and truths in mind:

Check your biases

We all have unconscious biases. Thanks to brains that categorize and stereotype to make shortcuts, they’re simply part of being human. But that doesn’t mean we have to let those biases control how we treat others or undermine our decision-making processes.

Thankfully, meetings are the perfect place to illuminate, challenge, and dismantle our biases. By nature, discussing opinions and ideas in meetings leads to a constructive level of confrontation and debate. And the semi-formal setting allows for an honest exchange of conflicting ideas. The place where these ideas meet is where innovative solutions are found.

Bring the right people to the table

Being truly inclusive isn’t just a matter of checking certain surface-level boxes. Instead, we need to consider what each person brings to the table and what their unique backgrounds and perspectives contribute to the task at hand. Remember, just as experience isn’t homogenous, neither is talent. And that’s a good thing!

To foster a truly creative and innovative environment, fill your table with a wide range of expertise and points of view.

The role of leaders in inclusive meetings

As with almost all initiatives, we need leaders to set the example from the top. If you’re leading a meeting with an eye toward inclusivity, try using these tips for increased success:

Assign homework: Preparation is essential for making the most of your time within a meeting, and it’s no different when we’re focusing on being inclusive. Encourage team members to flesh out plans ahead of time, research counterarguments, and think outside of the box. 

Set the scene: Being in charge of a meeting means you’re also in charge of its atmosphere. Try getting off to an inclusive start by, for example, calling on a junior associate first or someone who typically speaks up less often. Make it clear from the beginning that everyone will be invited to participate equally.

Emphasize psychological safety: For all employees to be included in meetings, all must feel that their ideas and comments are valued. Leaders must establish and maintain a psychologically safe environment for those who most often feel excluded to trust that their opinions belong at the table.

Facilitate and moderate: As the person leading the meeting, it’s your job to keep it on track while pushing your team members to expand their perspectives and seek out the most innovative solutions.

To do this, keep careful tabs on participation. Make sure to moderate any disagreements by encouraging healthy debates while calming disruptive conflicts. Also, keep track of how much different participants are speaking. If a few people are dominating the conversation while others struggle to speak up, press pause and push those participants to switch roles for a bit.

Keep a steady rein on the discussion by:

  • Clarifying the meeting’s purpose
  • Asking participants to write down their positions
  • Utilizing voting
  • Listing pros and cons of ideas
  • Encouraging counterarguments

Sometimes it can be difficult for one person to understand the hurdles that others with different backgrounds and identities face in meetings. Because of this, as a leader, try considering scenarios in which biases inhibit inclusivity and learn how you should deal with each.

Here are some example biases and solutions:

Unconscious Bias #1: “Smart people think on their feet.”

Issue: As this belief centers on the idea that openly energetic and out-going people have the best ideas, it tends to favor extroverts. Afterall, extroverts are those who “talk to think” while introverts usually “think to talk,” meaning that extroverts appear to participate more actively in meetings, sharing their ideas openly and frequently. On the other hand, introverts may seem reticent and uncommunicative. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have great ideas to contribute.

Solution: Many introverts benefit from having time to prepare their thoughts before they speak. Because of this, make sure to provide participants with any data or questions that will be relevant to the meeting ahead of time. Also, make sure to call on the quieter members on your team, giving them the floor to speak. Finally, encourage participants to follow-up with reflections and new ideas after the fact.

Unconscious Bias #2: “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Issue: While the nature of “unconscious” biases makes this one important for in-person meetings too, it’s especially prevalent with remote workers. Managing participation during virtual meetings can be especially difficult. And when we’re working remotely, there’s a degree of distance that can, unfortunately, encourage unhelpful behavior such as interrupting, commandeering the conversation, and forgetting to check your assumptions about others.

Solution: For virtual meetings, structure is key. Consider designating a team member to monitor and facilitate engagement. Make sure to have participants use chat and “hand-raising” features, then when they ask to speak, give them the floor. And finally, require people—whenever possible—to use their videos in the meeting.

Unconscious Bias #3: “Men contribute more than women.”

Issue: This is a tricky one within a category of biases affecting people of different genders, races, religions, abilities, and identities. Studies have shown that women are more likely to be interrupted in meetings while their ideas are taken less seriously than men’s. 

Solution: As with dismantling all biases that lead to discrimination and exclusion, leaders need to actively work to overcome this one. Set ground rules before all meetings that interrupting others is not acceptable. Encourage a culture of accountability in which colleagues feel welcome to politely call out poor behavior. And, of course, lead by example.

We know that inclusivity is good for business. It increases employee engagement, improves morale, and cranks up creativity across teams, all of which are beneficial for a company’s bottom line. Afterall, looking forward, seeking continuous improvement, and staying on the lookout for the next big innovation is how we achieve lasting success. And working, meeting, and being inclusive is a fundamental part of how we’ll get there.