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How can active participation in meetings be encouraged?

Retrium Team

Have awkward silences become the rule of thumb in your meetings?

Any facilitator knows the feeling — that sense of frustration when even the free coffee and snacks you brought as bribes aren’t working to boost team participation. And it’s even more awkward if you’re on a remote team. A lack of participation in any meeting while everyone is on a video or conference call can make everyone wonder if the internet went out 😬

If your team seems reluctant to share their thoughts and opinions, your team members may not be the problem—it is most likely the facilitation technique.

“Silence usually means people are holding back. Whether people are clamming up in meetings or avoiding questions behind closed doors, it’s up to you to understand why,” explains Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations and the cofounder of VitalSmarts,

It’s your responsibility as the meeting facilitator to foster an open space for participants to feel motivated and comfortable to speak up. But how? 🤔

With these tips, you can learn how to turn your reserved team into a bunch of productive chatterboxes in no time.

How psychological safety can get your team talking

Loose lips sink ships, and tight lips sink meetings.

One of the top reasons that your team isn’t participating in your meeting may be because they don’t feel comfortable doing so. This could be for a number of reasons, and it’s important to understand those reasons before seeking solutions.

However, in the workplace, employees are pressured to be on their “best” behavior—to avoid looking ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, and negative. This means they often don’t ask many questions, keep their head down, don’t admit mistakes, don’t offer new ideas, and shy away from critiquing the status quo. They may fear that if their negative opinions are shared with a manager or the entire team, that information may affect their future bonuses, promotions, or result in other repercussions.

If your team is focused on managing these impressions and don’t feel encouraged to speak up or share their opinions on how to improve the team or workplace then you have a psychological safety issue on your hands.

Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School Professor, first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams in 1999. Since then, she has observed how companies with a trusting and safe workplace perform better.

What is psychological safety? Edmondson defines psychological safety in her TEDTalk as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

In psychologically safe workplaces, employees and managers are encouraged and even expected to speak up.

“Psychological safety isn’t about being nice. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other,” explains Edmondson.

This is especially important when it comes to your meetings. Edmondson argues in her book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete that teams who encourage a climate of open reflection and learning are the most productive and successful. In this case, teams can fail at times but succeed when they openly and safely discuss errors then take action to improve together.

Mark Kirby, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer Of Capgemini, supports this practice of psychology safety in the workplace:

“Improving team performance requires candor. This can be difficult in organizations because typically what’s shared is limited by the perceived power gradient within that organization. People generally only share with powerful people the information they believe those people want to hear.”

Psychological safety needs to be fostered at the group-level so everyone feels free to engage with one another without judgement.

But you can’t snap your fingers and create a psychologically safe workplace. Our brains actually fight this response thanks to the amygdala. The amygdala is the emotional part of our brain that acts like a sounding alarm. When it perceives a threat, you go into a fight-or-flight mode. This natural instinct is useful when you’re out for a walk in the woods and encounter a bear but it’s not effective when you need to think strategically and collaborate with colleagues at work.

Your team can combat the brain’s defense mechanism by cultivating a culture in which everyone is encouraged to share ideas, spot problems, and to take risks.

Google’s People Operations team conducted interviews and a study of their team to identify what made them effective. They discovered that having a psychological safe environment was the top contributor to their success. According to their interviews and study, they found that, “Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”

So how can your team follow suit and effectively encourage the team to speak up in meetings?

Start by performing a safety check using the following facilitation techniques (often used in retrospectives) in your next meeting, to keep your team talking, engaged, and productive.

Perform a psychological safety check

In order to gauge just how safe your team members feel about sharing their thoughts, you can run a safety check. A safety check is a great exercise to do before the start of a meeting in order to get a pulse on the team’s levels of trust and openness in that moment.

Here’s how the safety check works:

Ask your team to anonymously write down a number from 1 to 5 to indicate their level of safety (1 is “I do not feel safe, my lips are sealed” and 5 is “I feel 100% safe, I’m an open book”).

If most of the responses are 1’s and 2’s, it will be difficult to host a successful or productive meeting, and expert retrospective facilitators always advise changing whatever plans you had for your meeting. Instead of your previous agenda, your efforts should be focused on understanding the root cause of the team’s hesitation and distrust. Then, you can determine ways to improve on your safety issues as a team.

If most of the answers are 4’s and 5’s, you’re in good shape to move forward with your meeting agenda. 👍 However, there may be a few team members who aren’t 100% secure. If you have any scores below a 3, have a discussion in the future around which topics or situations make the team feel uncomfortable (without calling anyone out directly) and be open to hearing their suggestions.

A safety check gives honest insights into how your team is feeling individually and collectively specifically around how much they can safely communicate.

Encourage the right to remain anonymous

No matter how psychologically safe your team feels, they still may subconsciously end up responding with what they think the team or managers want to hear. To ensure that your team is providing honest answers in the safety check and during meetings, you can establish and maintain anonymity when asking questions such as:

  • What didn’t go well during this project?
  • How can the team improve?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the team morale?

There are many ways to maintain anonymity during meetings. For meetings that are held in person, you can have participants privately write down their answers and put them all in a hat. This way, privacy is maintained and it’s impossible to determine who wrote which answer.

For remote teams, facilitators will need a digital tool that allows anonymous contributions such as Retrium. With anonymous brainstorming and voting, each remote team member can rest assured that their answers cannot be tied back to them personally.

Allow equal participation for all

Another common reason that may be keeping your meeting participants from speaking up is the structure of the meeting itself. Do your participants know that active participation is expected? Is one team member taking up most of the time by giving long winded answers? 🗣️

The solutions to these roadblocks are pretty simple, but just as important for fostering equal participation.

A somewhat obvious, yet effective strategy to encourage meeting conversation is to establish a dialogue and expectations before a meeting starts. It’s always good to have everyone on the same page before the meeting gets off track.

By setting clear expectations that every team member is encouraged and expected to voice their opinion, everyone can come prepared to the meeting with talking points, updates, or feedback to share with the group.

Additionally, as a meeting facilitator, you set a time box for each person to say their piece. This allows everyone to speak, but gives equal weight to each person’s perspective.

Democratize the meeting invites

So everyone feels comfortable participating in the meeting, allow the team to collectively decide who is invited to it.

Sometimes, team members may feel unsafe when multiple managers are invited to a meeting, and often with retrospective meetings, product owners, directors, and executives are not included in the conversation. Take a look at the invite list and really consider if anyone besides the team really needs to attend.

In addition to this, the facilitator of the meeting can remind everyone that what happens in the meeting, stays there. This allows the team to feel at ease when they know their feedback and opinions won’t be broadcasted to the leadership.

Incorporate introvert-friendly strategies

Whenever close friend groups get together, it feels natural to fall into a conversational rhythm, with the talkers doing most of the talking, while the more quiet observers sit back and absorb.

This notion holds true within workplace teams, and normally it’s a non-issue. It does become tricky, however, when one or two people dominate the meeting conversation. It’s important as a manager or facilitator to make your meeting a fair playing ground for all types of people, especially the introverts in the room.

By utilizing methods such as timed discussions, anonymous voting, choosing the right time for the meeting, and open ended answering exercises, you can effectively encourage introvert meeting participation.

Increase your own vulnerability

A fantastic way to establish team-to-manager (or facilitator) trust is being vulnerable with your own mistakes and flaws. Demonstrating the behavior you’d like your team members to display in the hopes that they follow is a trusted method among leaders.

If you haven’t heard of an Oops Wall, it’s time that you do. An Oops Wall entails creating a physical space (or virtual for remote teams) for managers to publicly post their weekly mishaps and mistakes. By sharing mistakes transparently and frequently with others, you’re creating a culture of openness and honesty. You may even find team members starting to post their own mistakes on the wall, too!

For in-house teams, an actual wall with post-its works great, preferably in a common space for the whole team to see. A messaging board or Slack channel named “Oops Wall 🙈 ” can work well for distributed teams.

By openly sharing mistakes and weaknesses with others, a relatableness and connection is automatically created, as well as (hopefully) a conversation.

Make the meeting a routine

According to a study published by the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes on average more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes a habit — 66 days to be exact. So in order to get into the flow, open dialogue should be consistent in your meeting routine.

Even if your last meeting was successful, if held too few and far between, your team members will likely forget the conversational feeling of that meeting. Instead of a one-time check-in following the end of a large project, make it a point to meet with the team regularly to encourage ongoing learning, contribution, and improvement.

This is the purpose of an agile retrospective. A retrospective offers teams a specific and regularly scheduled event to safely share what is going well and what should be improved. Without this, it can be difficult for team members to understand when and how they should voice their feedback and find creative ways to improve together

Mark Kirby advises to carve out time each Friday for teams to discuss what went well that week and what didn’t:

“Rather quickly, you’ll find teams begin to understand that things can be changed. People will have more confidence about speaking up. And you’ll have an opportunity to fix and change course on items well before the end of a project – and achieve better results as a consequence.”

Without workplace communication, relationships would be a lot more difficult, and problems would take a lot longer to solve. By implementing these practices to encourage participation in meetings, you can more effectively reach organizational goals—with or without the snack bribes 🍫

Learn more about how to improve engagement in Chapter 4 of the Ultimate Guide To Agile Retrospectives: Increase Engagement and Participation In Your Retrospectives!

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