How can we prevent biases from sabotaging meetings?

Greetings! Sarah from the Team Playbook team here... As a team, we've been talking a lot lately about how to make meetings more inclusive, and in so doing, get more value out of them.

Introverts, remote workers, women, and people of color often struggle to be heard in meetings. Why? Because of unconscious biases we all (yes: all) carry. These 3 in particular: 

  1. "Smart people think on their feet". Of course, many smart people do. But there are loads of super-smart introverts who don't. 
  2. "Out of sight, out of mind." When people are joining remotely, it's all too easy to forget they're there.
  3. "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 bias also affects people of color, regardless of gender.

Consequently, we miss out on valuable input and the opportunities those insights lead to – something no team can afford in today's fast-paced and ever-changing landscape.

That's why running inclusive meetings is actually a competitive advantage.

It might be easier than you think. For example, if one person is dominating, ask them to be the scribe. This intrinsically tasks them with listening and creates a space for others. Or how about sharing the agenda in advance so any introverts in the group have a chance to process it without the added pressure of being in a noisy, fast-paced social setting? 

Being more inclusive doesn't require extra work – just some thought. And the best part is that inclusivity isn't a zero-sum game. Nobody needs to be excluded in order for someone else to be included.

Our new Inclusive Meetings play is packed with strategies you can use before, during, and after your next meeting. When we create an environment that encourages diversity of opinion and participation from all attendees, everybody wins.

As much as we love this new play, we suspect it is incomplete. So we want to hear from YOU! 

What has made your workplace more inclusive? Or, what tactics would you like to see employers try? Conversely, what hasn’t worked in your experience? 

On behalf of the whole Team Playbook team... cheers!

6 comments

I do feel the meetings are predominantly on whom to fix the blame on rather than leaving out the famous five W and H i.e (who when where what why & how).  If who is left out, meeting can concentrate on resolution, learning and follow up. Once the philosophy is understood in essence in intention and its content to do right first time and every time, interactions become the norm rather than exception. Members at the lower most rung thus get involved and take pride in it. Its just a matter of recognition at all levels starting from top where everything is policy driven based on data

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Good point about involving people at ALL levels and giving them a sense of ownership. 

Hi Sarah,

In addition to the (lack of) inclusiveness of meetings I think there is another aspect of meetings that tends to favor dominant participants in the moment: the fact that meetings have a quality of finality.  

In the Inclusive Meetings play you linked, in the "Wrap it up" section, there is the example statement that demonstrates this attitude of finality: "The decisions we made here today will set us up..."

I understand that we want to make some decisions so that we have something concrete to get started with (which is one of the reasons why we arrange meetings) but when we make revisions less likely (because of the finality of a finished meeting) I bet we are missing out on some beneficial, perhaps subtle, course corrections. 

Often after a meeting someone will send out an email to, say, a dozen people containing the result of the meeting (some kind of document). I know when I think of something worth amending 20 hours after that meeting if there isn't a single location where the result of the meeting lives, where it can undergo revision, I sometimes don't exert the effort to attempt to revise something that is already in at least a dozen inboxes.  

 

What do you think?

Like 4 people like this

That's a great point – and it's actually addressed in the follow-ups section of that play. (Side note: given that you didn't notice it, I wonder if we should tweak the page design to make follow-ups and variations more visible.) 

"Proactively solicit ideas that might’ve come to mind after the meeting. To produce their best work, introverts need time alone to process new information. For example, send out a message along the lines of: “Anyone have a new insight about this situation since we met? If so, I’d love to hear it.”"

Simple, effective tactic for making sure those after-the-fact thoughts get captured. 

Oh, you're right. I did miss it.

 

I think maybe the "Nailed it?" section looked like the footer of the page or something when I first looked at it.

Ahh... thought so. Noted for the next user experience audit of the site!

While the play itself recommends some good practices, I think it injects racial and sexual issues into a topic that has nothing to do with race/sex and assumes certain racial and sexual stereotypes that aren't helpful.

The promo also asserts that everybody is racist or sexist.  People deserve to be judged by their actual ideas, choices, and actions, and not either be condemned without any evidence at all, or assumed to be so "unconsciously".   Is it really good for your business to accuse everybody of having hidden racial/sexual biases?

Speaking of biases, the promo article assumed men speak up and that women (and minorities) don't and that this is a problem that needs solving makes blanket assumptions about people's personalities and social skills based on sex and race rather than based on their actual qualities.  Some people are introverts who don't speak much and who may be left out of discussions for one reason or another.  Some are fine and participate nicely and everything is fine with them.  Still others are a little too pushy and crowd out the contributions of others.  Such people come in all sexes, colors, ages, and shapes.  Stereotyping women and racial groups as shrinking violets who can't hold their own in meetings misses the problem (their communication styles) and focuses instead on their race or sex.

If you stuck to people who are introverts (who come in all sexes and colors) and people who are in remote locations (who likewise come in all sexes and colors) you would have been fine.  Racial stereotyping doesn't seem so fine.  Treating people you work with like the individuals they are is much better.

Like 5 people like this
Greg Hall I'm New Here Nov 15, 2018

I believe each of us would like to think that we are not biased, racist, sexist or pushy.  Especially when it comes to meetings, since that's where progress needs to be made.  We hold meetings to inform, coordinate, report and to plan - everyone who is a player there needs to feel included and walk away feeling that the effort and communication was worth the time.

Although Sarah did say in the original article that introverts, remote attendees and women are often dismissed or corrected, the play was very neutral, emphasizing purpose, focus and inclusiveness, not calling out men, women or race. 

Not everyone is racist or sexist - I agree this point could have been more focused on personalities. and in a day when we hear so much on the importance of recognizing and including each other, there is no room for biases.

And I like to think of introverts as Quiet Thinkers.  They don't speak up right away, but when they do, their thoughts and contributions are usually very insightful and valuable because they have taken the time to think through what is being shared.

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Nowhere in this article do I find an effort to condemn. Rather, it does a great job reminding us that we all have unconscious biases that can lead to bad habits. It provides insight that can lead to self-reflection and improvement.

This article says nothing about labeling someone as racist or sexist. But I find it very valuable that it reminds us of the inescapability of biases, including those that involve the cultural constructs of gender and race. We ignore them or consider them off-topic at our peril due to their pervasiveness and demonstrably negative effects.

If we all participated in the exercise of acknowledging, facing and correcting those biases as much as possible in everything we do, it could diminish the instinct to take personal umbrage at being labeled as a particular thing when we can, instead, aim to self identify our own shortcomings (unconscious or otherwise) - that inevitably involve the constructs I mentioned above - and take steps to improve.

But please understand that there are subtle and not-so-subtle negative things we all do everyday that are affected by our own cultural bias that can be improved. Insisting, "I am not racist and I am not sexist." or the like improves nothing.

Proclaiming, "I am not a mathematician." does not insulate anyone from cultural interactions with arithmetic or a particular level of difficulty in grappling with it in subtle or not-so-subtle ways every day. Don't be distracted by a label. Honestly seek to understand the continuum, yourself and other people. I still have much to learn and improve.

Thanks for the refreshing, appropriate article.

BTW: "What has made your workplace more inclusive?"

  • More diversity in hiring for both standard positions and internships.
  • Managers that support, mentor, listen and encourage career paths and growth.
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I'm not sure how it is that your workplace can become "more inclusive" by explicitly choosing to not hire certain groups of people on account of their race and sex.  That seems pretty uninclusive of such people.  Perhaps you are using those terms in some sort of ironic way?

As for the idea that we have "unconscious biases" to overcome, perhaps one of yours is a tendency to see everything through some kind of race/sex-based lens and to ignore the possibility of treating others as unique individuals and not cookie cutter examples of stereotypical race and sex-based groups.  In my experience introverts, chatterboxes, and remote workers come in all races and sexes.  I'm not sure why you would recommend treating people of this or that race or sex as being more or less introverted or extroverted rather than according to their actual observed inclinations.  Perhaps this is an unconscious bias of yours.

As for responding negatively to accusations of racism and sexism being somehow an invalid response, you seem to be applying your bias about seeing racism and sexism everywhere in such a way that one is guilty of this regardless of that they do, what they think, and what they way.  Don't you think that such a formulation reinforces your bias?  Shouldn't you seek to curb this bias? 

Don't you think that when it comes to interpersonal relationships, not being called on in a meeting because you are a little on the meek side is a small slight compared to being accused of racism and sexism?  The latter seems to be a much more serious accusation, one that in some circumstances could even get you fired.  By contrast the other stuff seems like small potatoes.

"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 bias also affects people of color, regardless of gender.

 

Any data to back up this claim?

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There are a handful of studies that have come to this conclusion at a high level, with some nuanced conclusions depending on the exact methodology of the research. A few examples include: 

And this article from Forbes sums it up in a less academic way than the 3 research papers above: Gal Interrupted, Why Men Interrupt Women And How To Avert This In The Workplace

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How is that not a gender stereotype?  Perhaps judging people based on their actual actions would be better than attempting to tar a whole sex or race with an accusation of bad behavior would be a better policy.

Regarding research of this kind, I can't imagine how they could correct for issues related to who actually was in those meetings and why.  There are so many factors in each one that would seem to be impossible to tease out sex as the only relevant one.  For example, did they correct for seniority?  Subject?  Subject matter expertise?  Type of organization (business, club, church, neighborhood meeting, etc.)?  Purpose of the meeting (exploratory discussions/brainstorming, reporting on past actions, planning new actions, socializing, etc,.)?  And the specific personalities of the people involved?  Jumping to the conclusion that somehow sex or sexism is at the root of whatever differences were involved seems unwarranted.  I think that's doubly so when you consider the completely artificial communication scenarios used in some of these papers (like the first one in particular).  

All that aside, let's say you are right, and there is a provable statistical pattern of women not speaking as much as men on average.  When have you ever had the average man or woman in your meeting room?  I never have.  I have actual real human beings in my meetings and they don't correspond to stereotypical categories.

The right thing to do in dealing with coworkers is to treat them as individuals with individual strengths, shortcomings, achievements, and faults, not as stereotypical representatives of racial and sexual groups.

There's a typo in the play article: "pariticpants"

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D'oh! On it. Thanks for letting me know. 

sebbdkN I'm New Here Friday

Being an introvert is a bias, as an introvert my self i have taught myself to speak up when need be, and ask for the material i might need to prepare in advance.

Meetings are common problem solving ground, either adhere to meeting rules like not interrupting and monologging, or except the much less efficient meetings you will end up with. And yes, dealing with your inner introvert and speaking up, is also part of this.

For people calling in, i find the problem is much more often a logistical, or cultural, bias rather than a human bias.

Like 1 person likes this
Sarah Goff-Dupont Atlassian Team Friday

Interesting: I'd never thought of introversion as being its own flavor bias, but I see your point. 

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