How to counteract 3 types of bias and run inclusive meetings

Think back to your last team meeting. Did you get in everything you wanted to say? Did that one rambunctious teammate jump in before you could finish your killer point? We’ve all been there.

It feels like crap, right? Yet, the truth is that how it makes us feel is only part of the story. There’s also the not-so-trivial matter of how being ignored or talked over in meetings limits the entire group’s performance.

Consider that companies who are robustly diverse report growing market share 45% more often than their more homogeneous counterparts and are 70% more likely to capture a new market, according to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation. Why? Because when a group is demographically diverse and has diverse experiences like military service, multi-lingual skills, education or work abroad, etc., it gains what’s called “cognitive diversity”. And cognitive diversity – varied perspectives, thought patterns, and problem-solving approaches – produces better solutions.

But there’s a catch. If we don’t counteract the sub-conscious biases we all (yes, all) carry, and create an environment where everyone can contribute, we don’t actually benefit from that diversity. Which brings us back to meetings. Women, people of color, remote workers, and introverts often struggle to be heard in meetings. Based on what we know about the benefits of diversity, the impact of excluding certain groups is that the entire team misses out on valuable ideas and insights that lead to new opportunities. In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing marketplace, this could mean bad news even for teams with high diversity and potential.

Fostering a culture of inclusive meetings is emerging as a competitive advantage. Building that culture is a matter of understanding the biases that sabotage our effectiveness as teams, then adjusting your approach to meeting facilitation.

Kennedy points out that inclusive leaders create an environment where it’s safe to propose novel ideas and everyone can be heard, which creates a sense of belonging amongst a team’s diverse members. And while relatively few of us show up as leaders on an org chart, we can all demonstrate inclusive leadership qualities in the way we facilitate meetings. 

Three types of bias that sabotage your meeting’s value

Even the most social-justice minded and well-intentioned people harbor unconscious biases. (If you think you’re the exception, take this test developed by Harvard researchers. Go on… I’ll wait.) Renee Cullian of Harvard Business Review identified three specific biases are especially destructive in the context of running effective meetings.

Smart people think on their feet and react quickly.” This negatively affects introverts. Let’s say you ask a group where you should go to dinner tonight. You might think the first person to raise their hand has the best answer, just because they were first. Meanwhile, a culinary expert who happens to be a bit shy is going through her mental list of fabulous local restaurants. She’s actually the more credible source of information. She just takes time to think before she speaks.

Out of sight, out of mind.” This one affects colleagues joining the meeting by phone or video. We humans are hard-wired to pay the most attention to things (or, people) in close physical proximity to us. It’s rare that we intentionally exclude people joining remotely, but it’s easy to forget they’re there.

Men have more to contribute.” Men interrupt women far more often than they interrupt other men, sometimes so they can explain something the woman actually knows more about or reiterate the woman’s idea as if it were their own. (This is where we get the terms “manterruption”, “mansplaining”, and “bropropriation”.) The behavior may not be intentional, but its pervasiveness is proven by research.

We’ll probably never be rid of these biases because they exist on a sub-conscious level. They’re our default setting. The trick is using our conscious brains to override them.

Before the meeting

Share an agenda at least 24 hours in advance. Not only is this good meeting etiquette (I mean, you do this anyway… right?), you’ll get better contributions from any introverts in the group since they tend to spend more time processing and reflecting before they respond. It also benefits remote workers, who miss out on the hallway conversations at the office and might not arrive with the same information and context as the rest of the group otherwise.

Furthermore, make sure you budget time for each agenda item wisely. Yes, we want to be efficient. But take it to the extreme, and the pressure to move the meeting along will eclipse the contributions of less vocal participants.

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