How to facilitate a meeting of diverse participants

How to facilitate a meeting of diverse participants

Jerry ran a work meeting to generate possible solutions to a challenge his organization was facing. Yet, his gathering of highly qualified individuals produced no promising ideas. The two racial minorities did not speak. Neither did the sole under-30 team participant — unless you consider her surly expression a statement. The four white males and the one over-40 white female lectured the group on their views but no one built or commented on what they heard. In sum, the meeting oscillated between awkward silence and self-aggrandizing soliloquies. If you’re one of the many people who’s been in a meeting as unproductive as Jerry’s or want to avoid ever being in one, keep reading!

When people don’t feel respected, valued or emotionally safe, they often clam up. This reaction is an involuntary evolutionary adaptation meant to keep them safe. Those in the minority or who hold less power are especially likely to refrain from providing input.

As a result, working with a diverse team involves managing an inherent tension. Research finds that work conducted by a diversity of individuals typically generates better results than work conducted by individuals with similar demographics and backgrounds. Studies have uncovered that diversity on juries led to smarter decisions and fewer mistakes, that diverse teams of adult video-game players earned over 30% more prize money than their more homogenous rivals and that groups of diverse contributors produced higher quality Wikipedia pages than non-diverse groups . Yet, research also finds that the exceptional results that only diverse groups can attain often are unrealized largely because the discomfort of a diverse group leads many members to withhold full participation. This is the problem Jerry had.

Fortunately, research, including a comprehensive study by Daan van Knippenberg, Lisa H. Nishii and David J. G. Dwertmann, has identified five facilitation practices to make meetings more inclusive and minimize the risk of a “Jerry meeting”:

1. Explicitly state that pursuing diverse perspectives is important. Consider, for example, making one of the meeting objectives “respecting all points of view” and wording an agenda item “collect ideas from all team members,” as opposed to simply “collect ideas.” You can even use playfulness to promote open-mindedness by, for example, offering prizes for “whacky ideas.”

2. Craft a low-stress process for eliciting diverse ideas. Try to make sharing as low-stress as possible. For example, instead of inviting team members to suggest ideas as part of a whole-group discussion — which requires being comfortable in the spotlight — have them write their ideas on stickies that you post for all to see.  

3. Use a process for selecting the best suggestions that respects unusual ideas. Once you’ve gathered diverse ideas, ensure the radical ones aren’t automatically disregarded for that very quality. One approach is to have the group identify the ideas that are unusual and facilitate a discussion on those specifically. 

4. Review the inclusive processes used to reach a decision. In your meeting wrap-up, highlight the meeting’s attention to inclusion. This might sound redundant, but it helps participants realize that diverse thinking drives success and makes them better team players down the line.

5. Institute a zero-tolerance policy for incivility, bullying and prejudice. Set expectations  for consistent civility, model this behavior and immediately squelch any transgressions. Christine Porath, a management researcher and professor, has established that rude remarks, disrespectful actions and other incivility undermine team collaboration and performance. If prejudice is an issue on your team, apply these tactics that have been proven to reduce it. 

By instituting these five practices, you won’t only end up with an energized meeting that produces higher quality work, per research. You will also be job purposing (making meaningful work-based contributions to others or a societal cause) because you will help participants benefit from a sense of belonging, pride and joy. As always, by job purposing, you will also boost your own motivation, success and wellbeing.

Next time you need a brilliant solution or idea, you know what to do. Gather a diverse group of individuals with the appropriate competencies, apply the above inclusive facilitation practices and enjoy the resulting magic!

Learn more about Bea's book, Do Good at Work.

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