Executive Meetings

Inclusive meetings: Where diversity of thought lives or dies

Meetings are critical to culture, and inclusive meetings are central to encouraging diversity of thought. This article helps leaders to host inclusive meetings, so that every individual can contribute their full potential.

Robert Mitson
Robert Mitson

Meetings have always been where an organisation's culture is lived. However, it's true that they've evolved unimaginably in the last decade. It is now commonplace that we meet virtually, across geographies, time zones — and different backgrounds. And, in many cases, meetings have become the only forum for real-time collaboration. All of this creates challenges for leaders, who need to ensure that all of their people can contribute expertise and make their voices heard. In order to do this, meetings need to be inclusive. 

Without inclusivity in meetings, leaders risk losing the diversity of thought that is so enriching to corporate life, and also risk alienating swathes of their work forces. And the numbers bear this out — according to research by McKinsey & Co., organisations who embrace gender diversity are 25% more likely to financially outperform those who don’t, and are 36% more likely when it comes to racial diversity. After all, you don't hire intelligent people and invite them to your meetings only to ignore a significant proportion of them. 

This article gives leaders actionable steps to follow to help them make inclusive meetings the norm, so that every individual feels able to contribute their full potential. 


The links between meetings, inclusion, and success 

Before we explore how to make meetings inclusive, it is important to understand the connection between meetings and inclusion more generally. Meetings are where an inclusive workplace culture begins — and, according to Harvard Business Review, "from what we’ve seen, executives often miss the mark."1 It is true that many leaders overestimate their abilities to run meetings, often failing to recognise the influence they have over participants and their experience of meetings. In lacking this understanding, leaders often fail to create adequate space for all of their participants, and therefore fall short when it comes to making their meetings inclusive. 


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According to the World Economic Forum, “Almost half (45%) of US women business leaders [think it's] difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings” — demonstrating the need for renewed focus on holding inclusive meetings as much of the world embraces remote and hybrid meetings as the default. It’s also true that remote workers on the whole struggle to speak up in meetings, as “it’s harder to read physical and social cues.”2

By failing to make meetings inclusive, leaders are effectively saying that there is a 'correct' archetype for their teams — those who are inherently confident speaking up — or even being outspoken. Those with little difficulty making themselves heard. 

At best, this is reductionistic, as we well know that organisations prosper when a blend of all personality traits are brought to the table. According to Dr. Steven Rogelberg, when meetings are done right, they are “key to employee engagement, innovation, productivity, and teamwork.” 

At worst, this is hurting leaders’ ability to make well-informed decisions. According to Christian Casal, former leader of McKinsey & Co in Switzerland, having multiple voices in a meeting is relevant, but what can lead to fruitful discussions even more, is for these voices to be in disagreement — something which can occur during diverse meetings, and something which leaders can leverage for better decision making, in the end. 

By holding inclusive meetings, leaders therefore build confidence in the more introverted individuals among their teams, and create a level playing field for everyone to contribute their expertise in the pursuit of better decision-making and enhanced productivity, innovation, and, ultimately, success. 


By failing to make meetings inclusive, leaders are effectively saying that there is a 'correct' archetype for their teams

How to make inclusive meetings the norm

Inclusive meetings take place when every meeting participant feels able to, and confident in, contributing to discussions in a meeting. This means that inclusive meetings need to provide a level playing field for all participants to contribute equally, and it is therefore incumbent upon leaders to provide this. Here are some simple ways to make inclusive meetings the norm in your organisation:  

1. Challenge your own preconceptions

Making meetings inclusive begins at home. Leaders need to begin by challenging their own preconceptions or biases. For example, as a leader, are you more extroverted? Have you ever struggled to contribute your ideas or opinions to meetings? If not, a little introspection at the outset will go a long way. How might it feel to be from a culture that is more reserved? Or how might it feel to lack the self-confidence to speak publicly? Considering your own lens before taking action will help you to take a more balanced approach.  


2. Prepare your meetings thoroughly

It's no secret that the fate of every meeting hangs on how well-prepared it is. However, for meetings to be inclusive, it is vital that you consider your meeting participants individually. It is best practice to create and circulate your meeting agenda ahead of time, giving participants the opportunity to give their input asynchronously before the meeting begins. This is especially important for those who are more introverted, as well as those who might need to consider their contributions in advance. You should also ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Who will be able to make the best contributions to each item on your agenda? 
  • Whose opinions should you actively ask for during each part of the meeting? 
  • Is there a way that you can engage more introverted team members before the meeting to give them a heads up on a subject that you would like to ask their input on? 
  • Also, is there a brainstorming method or a facilitation technique that you could use in problem solving that might involve these participants more completely? 

It is not only courteous to do this, but it is also central to making your meeting inclusive.  


3. Create an environment of psychological safety 

If you want your meetings to be inclusive, then you have to do everything you can to make your people feel able to speak up. Creating an environment of psychological safety in meetings is vital to ensuring that all voices — and all opinions — are heard. In the absence of psychological safety, your teams will default to safety in numbers and you could even become susceptible to groupthink

Ways to help people feel a sense of psychological safety include: 

  • Greeting people warmly to get things off to the right start, 
  • Stating the ground rules of your meeting very clearly at the beginning. According to The Development Guild, “codifying these helps make everyone aware of their rights and responsibilities. For example: no interrupting or talking over each other, mute yourself when not speaking, and encourage alternate perspectives.”3, and 
  • Encourage meeting feedback , to help you to grow as an inclusive meeting leader. 


4. Facilitate! 

A key way to make your meetings more inclusive is to actively facilitate them. Are certain individuals dominating discussions? Are some not speaking at all? As a meeting leader, it is incumbent upon you to facilitate and moderate discussions so that they are kept on course, and so that those with expertise can contribute fully without being drowned out by the louder voices in the room. According to TED, “having a clearly designated facilitator… will balance airtime and bring out a range of perspectives.”4

This is a good opportunity to refer back to your meeting preparation at this stage, to see who you thought would contribute most meaningfully to each agenda item.


5. Rotate meeting roles for each meeting

There are a number of meeting roles that need to be fulfilled in every formal meeting. It is likely that certain individuals will volunteer to fill these posts — which is great — however, a more inclusive way to do this is to randomly select a different person for each role in every meeting. This way, it forces some people out of their comfort zones, and gives others opportunities when they might not otherwise feel able to volunteer. 


6. Be transparent about decisions 

As a leader, one of the most effective ways to make your meetings inclusive is to involve your teams in your thought processes. If you are open with your teams about how decisions are made, you will help them to connect more deeply with the decision-making process, and will achieve greater buy-in for outcomes. This is also an opportunity to demonstrate to people that you listen, and that their feedback is considered during the decision-making process. 

To do this, you should explain your decision-making process for each individual decision, including:

  • The stakeholders who will be involved,
  • The approvals that might be needed,
  • The timeline you hope to work to, and 
  • How the outcome will be communicated. 

You can also consider using a clearly defined decision-making framework for more complex decisions, which will further increase the transparency of your process. 


Inclusive meetings can no longer be a nice to have

It is true that meetings are either the beginning or the end of diversity of thought at your organisation, and by making them inclusive you not only welcome all voices to the discussion, but also avoid insidious and destructive phenomena such as groupthink. 

By making a number of small changes, and giving deliberate consideration to the inclusivity of your meetings, you broaden the perspective of discussions and open the door to the full potential that your talent has to offer. 

Do you want to learn more about meeting management?

1 “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters”, McKinsey & Company, 2020. 

2How to Overcome Your Fear of Speaking Up in Meetings”, T. Besieux, A. C. Edmondson, and F. de Vries, HBR, 2021.
3Why women don’t speak up on Zoom calls - and why that’s a problem”, N. Merchant, World Economic Forum, 2021.
4How to lead inclusive meetings”, The Development Guild, 2022. 

5How to have more inclusive meetings over Zoom”, D. Chugh, TED Ideas, 2020. 

Robert Mitson
Robert Mitson
About the author
Robert is passionate about shaping and communicating value, and in his work as English Content Specialist he creates insight to help leaders across Europe to make every meeting count.