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How to Increase Participation in Meetings – A Guide For Managers & Leaders

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How to Increase Participation in Meetings – A Guide For Managers & Leaders
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How to Increase Participation in Meetings – A Guide For Managers & Leaders

While this isn’t a new problem, it does appear to be one that’s gathering a head of steam. More than ever before, employees are reluctant to participate at meetings. This can be from a place of fear, uncertainty, disinterest, and many others. In this post, we’re going to share a host of ways to better engage with your team members and encourage them to provide active, valuable contributions in meetings from now on.

This advice is intended for team leaders and managers, and offers tips for any type of meeting. It’s not specific to weekly catch ups, project updates, one-to-ones, or anything else—this is advice which, if implemented correctly, will help your team to have more inclusive, participatory and value-generating meetings.

And there’s only one place to start: speaking to your team.

Explain that participation is important

Explain that participation is important

If this sounds obvious, then fantastic. Meeting participation is not actually a hugely complex issue, but rather something that compounds small effects over time. If your team has a habit of not contributing to meetings, that’s going to become their default state. Breaking out of that state—i.e. Participating—will naturally cause some anxiety.

So here’s where you should start: by telling your team that you expect them to contribute regularly. That’s it!

This is simply about clarifying expectations. Maybe in previous roles your quieter team members were encouraged to listen rather than contribute at meetings; or maybe they prefer to bottle up their concerns and deal with them privately afterwards.

Whatever the case, for any team lead looking to increase meeting participation, we always start by saying, set out your expectations for participation. Tell everyone you want them to contribute wherever they have something valuable to add. Good or bad, subjective, inquiring, contrarian—these are all worth far more than silence.

It’s incredible how often this simple message will transform people’s willingness to take part. And, more importantly, the meaningful impact on the team’s success as a result.

Lay ground rules for effective contributions

First of all, establish what kind of participation is actually valuable. One of the keys to increasing participation from quiet team members is to put the verbose or bull-headed employees in their place. You know the type—there’s often at least one person who has a response to every question, or an objection to every sound idea. While not inherently negative, their influence can push down the contributions of others.

They say that the quietest person in the room is usually the smartest; while that’s not a reliable rule, they are usually the most considered with their opinions. Some employees feel intimidated by the sheer volume of words others throw into meetings. Or, if they know someone else is going to just angrily chew up their input, they’ll simply not bother speaking up in the first place.

So an obvious step to increasing participation is setting ground rules that everyone has to follow. This isn’t to limit certain members; it’s to limit low-value contributions and increase more impactful ones. At the same time, it’s vitally important that team members don’t feel like they always need to contribute—that’s not the point at all. Rather, let them know that if they don’t have anything productive to add, that’s not already been covered, then that’s absolutely fine—better than fine, actually. Encouraged!

Oftentimes the most vocal parties in meetings are just repeating redundant contributions that don’t actually advance the meeting at all. Let’s look at 4 rules any team can implement straightaway.

Discourage “giving everyone a chance to speak” at all times

#1 Discourage “giving everyone a chance to speak” at all times

The success of any meeting should be measured by the value it creates and the problems it solves, not by the sheer number of contributions. By the same token, if you’re trying to increase meeting participation, your success shouldn’t be measured in how many people now speak up, but how often the right person speaks up.

Valuable participation should be your goal.

There’s an idea that, in healthy teams, “everyone gets their turn to speak”. What this looks like for productive teams is that whenever someone can add value to a discussion, based on their experience and expertise and what’s already been said, they should do so. The goal is for this to happen 100% of the time.

What this doesn’t look like is going around the circle of team members to get everyone’s take on every point. This approach dilutes the valuable contributions and muddies your progress; it leads to verbose discussions and can waylay the team rather than aid it.

How to manage this properly

The simplest solution is to make sure your team knows that it’s not about who shouts the loudest. Usually from a place of anxiety or low self-confidence, some people will just mouth away endlessly. In this case, the prudent move would be to have a quiet word outside of the meeting, and explain they shouldn’t be doing that.

Also encourage your team members to speak like normal, functioning human beings—cut out the corporate spiel that makes other team members feel straight up uncomfortable.

Turn cameras on for virtual or hybrid meetings

#2 Turn cameras on for virtual or hybrid meetings

Speaking to a wall of eerily silent black rectangles is completely unnatural. You could argue it’s healthy and normal behaviour to not want to contribute in this scenario.

We recommend creating a culture within your team that everyone starts every meeting with their camera on. It lessens the distance and makes it less intimidating to contribute—allowing team members to literally hide themselves is a surefire way to keep participation low.

This is especially important when one person is doing most of the talking; for example, during presentations. The sensation that no one’s actually listening (which is unfortunately true much of the time) can be overwhelming when cameras are turned off.

#3 No phones on the table

This is such an obvious point, but it’s also so prevalent that it warrants its own section. Implement this rule from right now: no phones in hands or on the table during meetings.

They’re horrendously distracting, it’s disrespectful to other team members, and it betrays a lack of commitment to the meeting itself. This ties in with another important philosophy which is that meetings shouldn’t exist just for the sake of it—they need to have a purpose. The meeting length should be closely controlled and everyone should be focused on generating as much value as possible.

If half the team is distracted by notifications on their phones, this is rarely going to happen.

#4 Create a culture of “no bad ideas” and no fear

You can’t ask your team to actively and regularly contribute, only to then berate them for bad ideas. If people are scared of giving the “wrong” answer—and being ridiculed, patronized, or dismissed as a result—then they’re never going to freely open their mouths.

Many employees don’t want to admit mistakes, voice fears, criticize the status quo, or perform many other positive behaviors out of fear. Fear for their prospects, workload, job security, reputation…there’s a whole list of reasons. While some of this runs deeper into the company culture, it’s your job as a manager to make sure this doesn’t exist within your team. This lack of “psychological safety” makes it impossible for employees to truly contribute to…well, anything.

A similar point is language. Fussy, verbose corporate language is largely a thing of the past. Allow all team members to speak freely and naturally. Encourage members to be themselves at all times—you’d be amazed at the contributions this can surface!

Ask nervous members to contribute

Ask nervous members to contribute – in advance

If you’ve encouraged participation and set up some easy ground rules, most of the team will be ready to chip in. However, some people are just less confident; they don’t like giving off-the-cuff perspectives and prefer to think things through thoroughly.

One way to help build their confidence is asking them, in advance of a meeting, for a specific contribution. This could be a progress update, a presentation, opinions on the year’s projects, a personal story—just about anything, really. Let them say their bit, field a few questions, and then settle down for the rest of the meeting.

Another option is asking them to lead the day’s meeting. Share the agenda and answer any questions they have in advance. All they need to do is move the group on between topics; while potentially daunting, this is only likely to have a positive impact on them mentally.

Using a controlled environment like this gradually teaches people that meetings are nothing to worry about. If you have particularly boisterous team members, you might privately tell them not to interrupt or contradict the nervous team member during this meeting, since your real goal is building their confidence.

Prepare meetings more effectively

Prepare meetings more effectively

When your meetings are unstructured and a bit all over the place, participation becomes a whole lot harder. People aren’t sure exactly when to chime in, and frequently the conversation meanders around without much focus.

The biggest change you can introduce is an agenda for every meeting. This doesn’t need to be a formal document, but it does need to outline the topics of discussion, in order, and be attached to meeting invites so everyone can read it in advance. As well as making meetings more efficient, this gives more hesitant team members a chance to prepare; to decide which sections they can contribute to and perhaps even plan what they want to say.

For this to work, you need someone to make sure your team doesn’t stray from the agenda—most likely that will be you. Or as we suggested previously, you might occasionally put a more timid team member in charge. Don’t be afraid to pitch in and bring everyone back on course. Feel free to add rough timestamps to your agenda, so you know if you’re overrunning.

Only invite relevant team members

Another string to your organizational bow is only inviting team members that need to be there. You can’t ask everyone to contribute more and also put them out of their depth. This comes back to what we said about encouraging valuable participation: if everyone at the meeting can bring value, then 100% participation is much more likely.

Having irrelevant people in your meetings is only going to slow things up. More explanations, redundant clarifying questions and, worst of all, non-valuable contributions will fill up your allotted time rapidly.

Act on what happens in meetings

Act on what happens in meetings

There is one major reason for low participation in meetings that we haven’t covered yet: that nothing ever happens as a result of the meetings.

As the manager or leader, it’s your job to show that participation in meetings actually does something; that different voices and opinions are heard and considered; that management won’t just crack on doing things however they want; that meetings are about making decisions not making noise.

This is more of a broad management tip, but if people who contribute valid opinions or ideas don’t feel like they’re ever heard—and that, consequently, their input doesn’t actually matter—then they will stop. That’s a completely natural reaction. This happens all the time (majoritively with men interrupting or dismissing the contributions of women) and there’s no excuse for it.

If you’re one of the few managers that consciously doesn’t intend on using the input from team members, then stop asking them to offer it. However, if you’re part of the majority that either accidentally or subconsciously acts this way, it’s your responsibility to be proactive and to change your behavior. Aside from social gatherings, the only reason we have meetings is to make decisions and move towards some goal or objective—doing this effectively means acting on team members’ contributions.

This is a longer-term strategy, but it is extremely effective at encouraging genuine, valuable contributions in meetings.

Use praise to encourage participation

Use praise to encourage participation

If you’re a naturally confident speaker, or you’re simply used to overcoming your fears, it might not be obvious just how nerve wracking speaking up in meetings can actually be for some team members. It’s often a confidence thing—and nothing boosts confidence like acknowledgement of a job well done.

It’s your job to know when a team member is feeling nervous or anxious about participating. Once that person has successfully navigated a meeting, and especially if they visibly struggled with the spotlight, shower them with genuine praise. It can be private or public (you know what works best for your team) but it needs to feel like you mean it.

While very simple, praise from your direct superiors gives virtually all workers a fantastic, uplifted feeling—and that will affect how they perform in their next meeting.

Conclusion

As you can now see, encouraging participation in meetings isn’t rocket science. It’s mostly the art of paying (closer) attention and recognizing the simple reasons they’re not already contributing. As a manager or leader, it’s then your responsibility to action your observations and encourage team members to become more vocal. As shown, there are many ways to do this.

Probably the most crucial takeaway is that increasing participation comes down to empowering your team members. If you give them powerful reasons to contribute, then they will—and your team (and therefore the broader company) will naturally bloom as a result.

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