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Inclusive meetings: A How-To Guide for Managers

7 steps to manage interruptions, gender bias, groupthink, and chatty extroverts while working toward a meeting culture of inclusivity.

By Samantha Rae Ayoub  •   October 25, 2021  •   10 min read

It’s happened more times than I can count. I’ll be sitting in a meeting explaining my point of view, only to be interrupted mid-sentence by my (usually male) colleague, who begins speaking over me. Occasionally the perpetrator will glance apologetically in my direction or offer a trivial “sorry-to-cut-you-off-but…” explanation before droning on with their own thoughts. 

On one particular occasion that will forever be etched into my memory, I was interrupted by a very senior person only to have the most senior person in the room calmly interject and say, “Now hang on a moment. I want to hear the rest of what Samantha has to say. Please finish your thought, Sam.”

I was stunned – and so was everyone in the room. With all eyes on me, I had completely forgotten my original thought but I continued on nonetheless while the leader nodded in encouragement. 

As I finished speaking and the leader turned and nodded at the person who had interrupted me, signaling that they were now free to proceed, I couldn’t help but think – “Wow, how powerful! How inclusive.” I had never felt more heard or more like a true contributor in a meeting until that moment. I’ll never forget it.

Are your meetings truly inclusive? 

In the corporate world, we know that gender diversity and ethnic and cultural diversity remain a critical components for overall business success. In fact, the latest research by McKinsey underscores that diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform their less diverse peers. 

But remember: simply because your team is diverse does not mean that all your team members feel included. Building workplace cultures that are truly inclusive means systematically working to provide everyone with equal access to opportunities and resources while also ensuring everyone has an equal chance to contribute. And as a manager, if you are trying to build a team culture grounded in inclusivity, committing to inclusive meetings is a pretty fantastic place to start. 

Pro tip

Use a meeting management tool like Fellow to create collaborative meeting agendas so everyone can contribute to the meeting.

Seven tips for leading inclusive meetings

1 Set the rules for what is acceptable, and what isn’t

While it might seem fairly straightforward, setting the ground rules for meetings is an important first step when it comes to inclusive meetings. Don’t fall into the management trap of telling yourself, “Everyone knows how to behave properly in meetings.” I assure you – they do not. 

As the leader of your team, it is your job to help shape the team culture and this starts with a conversation about rules and values. 

On my own teams, some of our “meeting rules” over the years were simply things that were important to us collectively like: 

  • Be on time, and if you must be late, enter quietly
  • Be kind
  • Collaboratively prepare a meeting agenda 
  • Come prepared to actively participate
  • No interrupting others 
  • Encourage others to speak and share ideas
  • Speak freely and disagree respectfully without fear of reprisal 
  • Address all issues in the meeting – not in the hallway afterward

Now remember, rules are meaningless unless followed and reinforced. And as the manager, it is critical that you practice what you preach. If you have certain expectations of your employees, make sure you are leading by example and encouraging your team members to hold you accountable too. 

2 Build a collaborative agenda

My favourite rule about meetings, in general, is this: No agenda? No attenda!

However, this does not mean that agendas should be cobbled together in a meaningless fashion by you, the manager, 20 minutes before the meeting is expected to take place. Nor should you tell people that there is a “standing agenda” with the same items for each meeting. 

If you’re looking to be more inclusive in meetings, try building an agenda collaboratively.

  • Share a draft agenda or template in advance of the meeting (Pro tip: Fellow is a great tool for building collaborative agendas!)
  • Ask team members to add in talking points or topics (in advance)
  • Encourage newbie team members and more reserved contributors to add their points to the agenda
  • Sort the talking points or agenda items to ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak

3 Pay attention to where you sit and how much you talk

About 10 years ago, I attended a half-day professional development seminar on effective meeting management. While some of what was taught is a bit outdated now, as a manager, I still practice two meeting tips from that seminar to this very day: 

  1. Listen more than you speak, and if you must to speak, speak last.
  2. Never sit at the head of the table if your objective is to encourage collaboration.

These two tips have stuck with me over the years because they are so, so powerful when your intention is to build trusting, collaborative, and inclusive team environments. When the boss listens first and speaks last, it gives employees the freedom to be creative and share ideas rather than waiting for cues from the authority in the room. Similarly, when you sit at the side of the table rather than at the head, it unconsciously signals to team members that you’re there as a contributor, following the agenda and the meeting rules like everyone else. It serves to even out the playing field so to speak. Trust me, try it!

4 Watch carefully for interruptions, but encourage interaction

Ah, interruptions – a big pain point for me, mostly because I just don’t get it. We’re all taught at various points growing up that it’s impolite to interrupt while someone else is speaking, but for some reason, interruptions persist in the workplace, and particularly in meetings. 

Research shows that women are more than twice as likely to be interrupted than men in a group setting, that men interrupt more often, and that comments made by minority men and women are disregarded more than those made by their white, male colleagues. 

How then, can we as managers work to prevent interruptions while also encouraging interaction and natural dialogue in meetings? And what’s the difference between inappropriate interruptions and healthy interactions anyway? Here’s an example: 

Interruption: When a person disrupts a speaker mid-sentence or thought (whether politely or rudely) to add in their own ideas or arguments, not allowing the speaker to finish. 

Person #1: “So you see, if we considered a strategy that…”

Person #2: “Exactly! Love it! You know, I was thinking that if we just…”

Interaction: When a person briefly interjects to ask the speaker for clarification or to indicate that they agree and have something to contribute to the conversation.

Person #1: “So you see, if we considered a strategy that…”

Person #2: “Sorry to interject. I love this idea! Before you move on can you re-explain that last point? If I’m understanding you correctly, I might have a helpful addition.” 

As a manager, it is your job to call out interruptions and rule-breaking to ensure your employees all have a chance to contribute. Try something like: “Jordan, hold that thought! Let’s let Kris finish and we’ll come back to you.”  

5 Include people who share opposing views 

If you find yourself in a meeting where you share an idea and everyone nods in agreement, refusing to add anything of value or play devil’s advocate, you might as well end the meeting right then and there. 

It’s one thing for all team members to be on the same page and it’s another thing to be veering into groupthink territory, where the desire for group consensus overrides the desire to critique a position or express an alternative opinion. Managers also need to be cautious of confirmation bias – particularly in a work from home environment – where the need to search for and interpret information that confirms our beliefs and values actually increases.  

One sure-fire way to eliminate both of these issues is to aim for and encourage diversity of thought in meetings. 

  • Normalize asking team members to share counter-points when discussing ideas to ensure all sides are examined
  • Assign someone in the room to play devil’s advocate on a particular topic
  • Invite someone to your meeting who might hold an opposing view and ask them to help you ensure that all sides of the issue are placed on the table for the team’s consideration and discussion 

6 Find ways for introverts and extroverts to comfortably participate 

In a meeting environment, extroverted employees are usually quite comfortable thinking while they talk and they tend to thrive in creative, collaborative meetings. Introverts on the other hand, tend to process information first before speaking and oftentimes their idea or contribution might go unsaid or be drowned out by their more talkative peers.  

To ensure all voices from your team are included, try these tips:

  • Start each meeting with a non-meeting-related roundtable (like what everyone did on the weekend) to get each person talking and sharing
  • Ask employees to come to the meeting prepared with thoughts or ideas on a particular agenda item, and then ask those employees who are more introverted to share first 
  • Signal to the introvert in the room that you would like to hear what they have to say, but don’t put them on the spot without giving them a bit of time to think. Try something like: “Nikisa, what Trevor is talking about right now seems like it might be related to the research you were doing last week. I’m interested in what you have to say after we hear from Abed.”

7 Be aware of gender bias in meeting environments and avidly work to end it

It pains me that this still needs to be said, but I’ll say it anyway: Women are not solely responsible for fetching coffee, taking meeting notes, or planning staff functions. Period.

Unfortunately, gender discrimination remains a serious issue in many workplaces, and recent studies confirm that about 42% of women are still experiencing some form of on-the-job discrimination due to gender.  

Regardless of your own gender, as a manager if you expect everyone on your team to feel included and valued, it is vital to recognize gender bias in the workplace and systematically stamp it out, once and for all. 

When it comes to note-taking in meetings, Richard Branson offers this advice inside his company, “Men shouldn’t take over the note-taking from women, everyone should be taking notes.” Simple – love it! Similarly, in their article Madam C.E.O, Get Me a Coffee., Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant suggest that “office housework”– like cleaning up meeting rooms, finding office supplies, and sending out action items – should be assigned evenly to employees, ensuring these tasks are shared and valued. 

However you decide to tackle gender bias in meetings – not to mention all the other biases out there –  it is vital to openly talk to your team, and work avidly to not only spread awareness, but systematically take action. In other words: It’s not enough to talk about the changes you want to see, you must act too. 

Looking toward the future of work: Are inclusive meetings even possible in remote and hybrid work environments? 

In a world where many of us have not yet fully returned to the office, and some of us perhaps never will, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that embracing inclusive meetings in a remote environment will most certainly come with unique challenges. 

And so, in closing, a few final tips on how to navigate WFH issues while striving for inclusive meeting environments:

  • Take into consideration time differences when scheduling meetings
  • Rotate facilitators so people are able to contribute even if they do not have “content” to add to the meeting
  • Ask for feedback and additions to the agenda well in advance
  • Consider online tools for meeting facilitation and action item tracking
  • Encourage video meetings (cameras on), especially in smaller group meetings
  • Actively call on participants to ensure everyone shares an opinion or idea at least once in the meeting

Remember: shaping a meeting culture and being inclusive takes time regardless of whether you’re in person or working remotely. Making the shift to inclusive meetings is by no means a one-and-done scenario. All change takes time, dedication, practice, and a whole lot of grit from people like you – the managers.

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