Do your employees speak freely in meetings? Do they share their work-related opinions and knowledge? If an organization does not provide a safe environment for open communication, you could be missing valuable insights.
As a meeting leader, you want to establish a culture of open communication in meetings. But first, how do you know whether your team feels safe to speak up?
What does an unsafe meeting environment look like?
Here are some common communication behaviors people enact when they can’t share honestly in a meeting. People might:
Hold back their thoughts so when you ask for input, you get silence.
Fight too hard for their ideas, act defensively, and/or not listen to each other.
Censor their opinions in order to conform, resulting in verbal or silent agreement.
Hold “real” conversations after the meeting.
It turns out people are hard-wired to act conservatively around authority. Business and management professors James R. Detert at the University of Virginia and Ethan R. Burris at the University of Texas at Austin conclude that “a fear of consequences (embarrassment, isolation, low performance ratings, lost promotions) and a sense of futility (the belief that saying something won’t make a difference, so why bother?)” are the main inhibitors to candor at work. In their studies, they found that when employees can express their thoughts openly, organizations achieve stronger performance and higher retention.
To combat this behavior bias and reap the benefits of open communication in meetings and the workplace, take the following steps.
Step #1. Define open communication in meetings
Ask yourself what a meeting environment that is safe for honest discussion looks like. Ask your team the same question. Don’t force people to share in meetings; rather, find other ways to gather this information and (re)build a candid company culture.
Initiate offline, informal conversation to understand what your team really thinks.
Connect with people individually or in small groups outside of more formal meetings. Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations, recommends proactively seeking feedback in casual, informal settings, such as lunch or coffee chats. An attitude of curiosity and a genuine desire to understand team members’ concerns will aid this connection.
Gather anonymous feedback.
If people are not comfortable speaking with you individually, try other ways to gather feedback. Ask people to anonymously write down ideas on sticky notes and post them on the wall during a meeting. Or, create an anonymous online survey for people to answer.
Don’t expect change right away.
If this is your first attempt to establish open communication in meetings, or if the team size is small (making it more likely you’ll know who said what), you may not immediately get honest feedback. Don’t give up. It can take time to build trust. Let your team know that you are prioritizing honest communication.
Step #2. Share your learnings and invite responses
Once you’ve gathered information from individuals, share your learnings with the team to generate actionable next steps. Respect individuals’ privacy by not disclosing who said what.
Model the behavior when you share your observation.
The way you share your observations will model to the team that you welcome different ideas and even difficult conversations. Say something like,
“I’m noticing that there may be ideas that aren’t being shared in our meetings. I’ve talked to people individually and received XYZ feedback. I would like us to have a culture of open communication in meetings and wonder what we can do to encourage this.”
Reflect on the learning as a group.
Team members may be hesitant at first to participate in this discussion but give them time to think about their responses. Use the following questions to guide the team:
What benefits might we experience from including diverse perspectives?
What will the team lose if great ideas are not surfaced in our discussion?
What are the ways we can create a safe environment for open and honest communication?
What are the new norms our team can embrace to sustain open communication in meetings?
It may take several meetings and some follow-up communication to shift the trust of the team, but the rewards will justify the effort.
Step #3. Take actions based on your team’s suggestions and start implementing quick wins
Implement your team’s feedback as soon as possible to show them you are serious about building open communication in meetings. Here are some strategies that can help to consistently bring candid voices into the room.
TIP #1. Establish and rotate the “challenger” role in meetings.
Make “raising issues or concerns” in meetings a norm. Some teams create a “challenger” role, or “devil’s advocate,” to challenge group think and raise unpopular ideas. According to Detert, “It’s a good way to show that this process of putting things on the table is everybody’s job. And everybody does it without consequence.”
Ask participants to write down their ideas anonymously on sticky notes and post them on the wall instead of sharing verbally. Everyone comes up with their own ideas without feeling pressure to conform to the ideas of others. Everyone participates, including the meeting leader, further democratizing the meeting process.
Step #4. Build off of your successes
Once you establish some quick wins, ride the momentum and introduce the concept of norms to create lasting change. Here are some example norms you can establish in your team meetings:
Ask clarifying questions to avoid making incorrect assumptions.
Make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
Balance your participation – speak and listen.
Listen actively to teammates without interrupting others.
Say it now, in the room. Avoid waiting until later to raise an issue.
All voices count. All opinions are valid, but offer reasoning behind your thinking.
Like in any relationship, it can take time to establish trust. A meeting leader must be patient and consistently model an attitude which welcomes open communication. When a meeting leader is transparent with her team, the team is more likely to reciprocate with honest feedback.
Ready to build a meeting culture that supports open communication? Share this article to let your team know. And let us know your meeting communication challenges and successes!