Did you ever come out of a meeting feeling you didn’t have a chance to present your idea or perspective? Did you ever experience an interaction where you felt you were the only one talking and didn’t really know what your colleagues were thinking?
Communication is a social activity. Communication, by definition, is something you do with others, and that is why there is always a social layer to it. We cannot consider the effectiveness of the way we communicate by looking only at the content of the interaction. We must also consider social nuances that often don’t only affect but dominate the discussion. And since communication is never the goal but rather a means to some predefined mission, the social aspects can radically change the quality of the outcome. When a single voice dominates the discussion, the result cannot be consistently effective, no matter how well-articulated that voice is.
In a recent episode of Brené Brown’s podcast, the organizational psychologist Adam Grant said:
“I am so tired of the person who talks the most in the meeting or asserts their ideas with the most gusto, being the one who ends up dominating the decision-making.”
I’ve been there on all three sides of the problem: as the person unable to express his view, as the person who unconsciously dominates the discussion, and as a facilitator of meetings where too few voices were heard. We often mistake confidence for competence, but that is only one part of the problem. I tend to assume that all people on the team are competent (after all, that is why we hired them), but not all are equally charismatic or confident. In many workplace interactions, these less charismatic or introverted people are heard less. And since they are no less (and often even more) competent, the discussion becomes incomplete. We simply don’t hear everything that should be heard before making a decision. We are missing other opinions, perspectives, and insights that can radically affect the result of the discussion. Sometimes, foul play is involved, but in many cases, this is an unintentional outcome caused by a lack of awareness or inability to facilitate a discussion on equal terms.
To make discussions more effective, we must acknowledge the problem first. Then, we have to create a setup that enables a more effective interaction — a communication flow that allows us to hear voices that were silent or less prominent until now.
Let’s explore one such setup as an example — a less common way to run a meeting on equal terms. This is not the ultimate solution. It is merely one potential approach. You can (and should) tweak the method I will describe or develop your own process. Either way, the components of the process I will describe are a good starting point.
Eventually, you will have to craft a process that works for you and your team in your organizational context. As long as you do that intentfully to create an equal opportunity setup, and as long as you experiment and refine the process as needed, you are on the right track.
Writing Before Talking
We don’t typically associate face-to-face meetings with writing. For most people, the two ways of communicating are even contradictory. After all, if we are about to meet and discuss something in real time, why bother writing anything as part of the process? Many meetings are accompanied by a high-level agenda and a meeting summary. At the same time, most of the content of these meetings (the ideas people have, their insights, and whatever they present to support that) is not known in advance and is becoming “public” only during the meeting.
But if you think of communication as a process — a flow that includes several activities — you don’t have to choose between written communication and a real-time, face-to-face meeting. These two methods can complement each other and create a more effective and equal communication flow.
When writing is used as a preliminary activity to set up a better discussion, it has two significant benefits. First, writing has an equalizing effect. It helps us bring more voices to the table and removes much of our bias derived from a face-to-face discussion. Second, the quality of the content being discussed improves significantly because everyone has an opportunity to process the ideas before the actual debate starts.
Writing in this context does not replace real-time communication with an asynchronous alternative. Instead, it adds another component to the communication mix that enables us to utilize better the precious time we spend in the actual meeting.
WRITING IS AN EQUALIZER
Many forces come into play in a real-time, face-to-face meeting. The actual ideas being discussed are only part of the story. Some people are naturally more confident. Some people are more charismatic and have a certain presence in any group they are part of. We are naturally drawn toward these people and tend to give them more airtime (and, let’s be honest, also some more slack in terms of what they say). None of that is relevant to the quality of ideas these people have, and we rationally know that. But this natural bias is hard to overcome when you gather some people in a room, and one of them shines above the rest.
By giving more airtime to the charismatic, confident people, we miss many creative ideas and amazing insights from the more quiet people. It is not a matter of being unfair. It is a matter of being ineffective. The breakthrough we are looking for — that fantastic idea we cannot even imagine yet — might be cooking in one of these minds that we don’t give the stage to, even if we don’t do that intentionally.
Unlike a real-time oral discussion, writing has an equalizing effect. It eliminates much of this bias. One can certainly write more passionately or with more confidence. But generally speaking, you are more likely to focus on the content and be less affected by the tone when reading a text, if only because you have more time to process it.
When you read a logical argument, you are less influenced by the noise. You can backtrack and re-read a passage. You can stop and think about what you’ve just read. You can take some notes and add comments. You have a chance to form an opinion and maybe even develop your own ideas and insights. Reading in a relatively sterile environment allows you to process the idea — an activity that is much harder to do when you listen to someone talking with the possibly blinding effect of their charisma and confidence.
As a reader, you can remove much of the bias the real-time listener suffers from. And knowing that allows the less charismatic members of your team to share their ideas and get an equal airtime. Many people who feel uncomfortable presenting their ideas when someone else has already taken the spotlight would feel perfectly comfortable writing their views and insights and sharing them with the team.
Writing removes our natural bias towards confident presentations and creates a platform for more people to share their perspectives.
WRITING CREATES BETTER IDEAS
Writing your ideas, arguments, insights, and the relevant information to support them before a meeting might sound like an overhead, even if we accept the equalizing effect of the written text. We tend to consider such an activity to be a duplication of the conversation we are about to have. But writing has an even more fundamental benefit: it can make the oral discussion that follows more effective.
Most people feel their workplace meetings are mostly ineffective. One of the reasons for that is shallow preparation. When you go into a meeting with nothing more than a topic and maybe a high-level agenda, no one can guarantee a good utilization of the discussion. Often, we start thinking about the subject when the session begins, and we have to do so while listening to our colleagues. Even if we had some initial thoughts about the topic, anything could happen the minute the meeting starts, and the discussion can drift away in other directions, carrying us with it. The result is that it is hard to build a logical argument and present it in real time. It is even harder to fetch and show the supporting data, since ideas are generated mainly on the fly. We don’t have the capacity to process what we hear, and have even less bandwidth to form an opinion or a different view on the issue.
When we write (and read) offline, before the actual discussion starts, we have the space we need to come up with creative ideas, solid arguments, and supporting data to present in the meeting. Writing is not an act of recording. It is an act of thinking.
To have an effective meeting, each participant must start by asking themselves: what am I trying to achieve, what do I wish to say, and what is the best way to say it? Crafting your ideas, views, and relevant information in writing before the meeting is the best way to organize your thoughts, regardless of how confident and charismatic you are. The better-prepared everyone is, the more effective the meeting will be.
Your goal as a participant in the upcoming meeting is to craft your argument in writing so others will be able to understand it from the written text. We are not trying to replace the actual conversation, but we can certainly start it from a better position: with solid, well-articulated ideas and arguments. How to write your view effectively is a subject for a whole different article. For this discussion, it is enough to say that the opportunity to read your thoughts and revise them has a major positive impact the quality of your argument.
WRITE AND SHARE
Once we realize writing has an equalizing effect, and it also significantly improves our ability to process our ideas and the ideas of our colleagues, we can easily add it to the communication flow just before the actual meeting.
The term ‘communication flow’ is not accidental. When you think about a meeting as an isolated activity, the game is pretty much rigged. There isn’t much we can do to make it more effective. If we wish to improve the way we communicate radically, we must expand our field of view and acknowledge that combining different types of interactions creates a better, more balanced communication flow. When we mix various means of communication to create an intentful flow of data and ideas, we can utilize the best of all worlds and make a more effective process.
To create a discussion on equal terms, we need to take the idea of writing before talking and add it to the flow. As you set up a meeting, ask each participant to write their view, thesis, or argument and share it with the team. Make sure people understand they are expected to read these texts before the meeting. At the same time, we should avoid starting a written debate over email or instant messaging. The goal of this step is not to start the actual debate but to place all the ideas and information on the table as a setup for the discussion.
This step in the communication flow is not an overhead. It makes the meeting that follows more focused and creates an opportunity for more voices to be heard on equal terms. The face-to-face meeting does not start with a blank page — it starts with everyone knowing already what is on the table for discussion. Now, the discussion can be focused on understanding the ideas better, challenging them, and making a decision based on this much broader and more in-depth perspective. Much of the bias created by the participants’ personalities doesn’t come into play.
Pro Tip: Don’t Use Email! If you share the arguments in an email, people will naturally want to reply, or even worse: reply all. Instead, ask the participants to write a document with their idea, insights, and supporting data and store it in a shared location dedicated to the discussion. Reading a document and just taking notes instead of immediately responding feels more natural.
The Meeting’s Playbook
With a collection of well-articulated written ideas, we now have a good starting point for the meeting itself. But as helpful as this preparation is, there are still numerous opportunities for the meeting to go astray, especially if we don’t think about how to structure and facilitate the discussion.
Most meetings have some predefined agenda published. That is the simplest and most basic way to structure a discussion; in theory, it works. The reality is that even with a well-defined agenda, many teams struggle with following the plan. It is not rare to attend a meeting where, despite everyone’s good intentions, the discussion is stuck somewhere on slide 2, and no one gets to see, let alone discuss, other, maybe even more important, information and ideas that lie ahead.
There are two main reasons why meetings are often not effective. First, most participants typically see the material for the first time during the session. Without seeing the complete picture and with no time to process the information, it is natural to spontaneously kick off a debate on some minor bullet in the first couple of minutes of the meeting. Bringing everyone to the same starting point during the meeting is not the optimal way to spend the precious time of face-to-face interaction with multiple participants.
By writing and sharing all the ideas, perspectives, and information that are about to be discussed and by asking people to read and process them before the meeting, we can easily overcome this problem. We can spend every minute of the meeting discussing what really matters. We might still face the concern of hijacking the session, though.
When a meeting is not well-structured and not facilitated based on predefined rules, we easily fall into the personality bias trap again. We already read all the ideas in advance, but if the more confident people occupy most of the airtime during the discussion, not all ideas will get equal opportunity. Free-form discussions might sound great on paper, but they often lose focus (and, with that, the interest of many participants). When a meeting is hijacked, even if no one does that intentionally, there is no chance of making an optimal decision simply because not all ideas and views are discussed on equal terms.
To leverage the preparation we have already done and make the most out of the discussion, we must set some rules for the meeting and ensure everyone follows these rules by facilitating it.
THE RULES OF SETTING RULES
Setting simple, yet strict guidelines for a meeting can create equal terms. Often, setting the rules of the game also creates constraints that increase the effectiveness of the discussion, even if they seem arbitrary at first. If nothing else, having a set of predefined rules aligns expectations and allows everyone to prepare better for the meeting. Of course, for the rules to be effective and constructive, they must follow some guidelines too.
First, the rules should be defined and shared with the participants enough time before the meeting. Don’t surprise everyone at the beginning of the meeting with what appears to be arbitrary constraints. When people know what is expected of them, they can make the most out of the preparation time. No less important, they have a chance to affect the rules and raise some concerns you might not think of.
The second rule of creating the meeting’s playbook, and a non-negotiable one, is that everything applies equally to all the participants. We started with the need to create a more equalized setup for the meeting. The rules we set for conducting the meeting can dramatically impact that. If you define different rules for different people taking part in the same session based on rank or role, you are just creating structured bias instead of equal terms.
The third rule is that nothing is set in stone, but nothing should be changed on the fly during the meeting. The rules you set are not eternal and universal. Different types of discussions, different challenges, and different teams might benefit from a different playbook. The meeting’s playbook is context-sensitive, and, like any other aspect of life, it is likely to evolve and be adapted based on collective and personal experience. When you are attentive to what works and what doesn’t, you can refine and adjust the rules to achieve better results next time.
Improving the rules from one meeting to the next or applying different rules to different contexts is key to making this idea work. But changing the playbook on the fly during a session is destructive. If people know the rules are negotiable during the meeting, the meeting will not be effective. As soon as someone feels constrained by the rules, the discussion will shift toward changing them. We need to avoid that at any cost. Even if the rules are not optimal, keeping them for the time of the meeting yields better results than changing them during the game. Once the meeting is over, the team can raise issues, concerns, and ideas that will help you refine the playbook for the next meeting. However, during the meeting, the team should be focused on the issue for which they are assembled.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
We aim for an effective and equal-opportunity meeting. To achieve that, the playbook we define must govern the flow of the discussion and the time dedicated to each part. The rules must allow the team to debate and challenge ideas, not just present their views as monologues.
There is no universally optimal way to run a meeting, so experimentation, trial and error, and ongoing refinement will always be required. Eventually, you have to find the right balance for each context, and with time and experience, you and your team will develop a feel for it. But even then, there will be cases where you must stop and consider a variant of the rules to accommodate different circumstances and needs.
To get a sense of how such a playbook can look like, let’s explore the following example:
- A participant who shared a written idea before the meeting has five minutes to present the highlights of their idea.
- Following the presentation, the rest of the team has 10 minutes to ask questions and challenge the idea. The presenter does not respond to the challenges and questions at that time.
- The presenter has 10 minutes to respond to the questions and challenges. They should address all of them explicitly.
- A new round starts with the next person who shared a written idea before the meeting.
- When everyone has presented their ideas, the team makes a decision.
Now, this sounds well-organized and mechanical and probably unlike any of the meetings in your organization. While this is certainly not the single most ideal rule set (simply because there is no such thing), it is a good example of how an apparently radical set of rules can make the discussion much more focused and effective.
Let’s start with having only five minutes to present an idea. The goal of this step is not to share the bits and bytes of the idea, the detailed arguments, and the complete data set that supports it. Five minutes will never be enough for that. But, we don’t really need to dedicate precious time during the meeting to learn these details as they were shared before the meeting. Each participant had a chance to delve into all this important information and insights, process them, and even come up with questions or counter-arguments. This part of the flow is designed to align everyone on the idea we are about to discuss. Nothing said in this brief presentation should come as a surprise to any of the participants.
The next part of the flow is where the discussion actually starts: the team is invited to ask questions and challenge the presented idea. Once again, everyone had time to prepare their questions and arguments. Now, they have a chance to share them with the team and, of course, with the presenter.
A variant of the second step might be to ask the team to share their questions and challenges in writing before the meeting to help the owner of the idea to prepare their responses. However, I believe the dynamics of hearing the counterarguments during the meeting can raise more questions and enrich the discussion.
There is a risk that this part will develop into a debate, leaving no time to discuss other views. To avoid that, the meeting’s playbook delays the responses until the next step, where the presenter retakes the stage and responds to questions and challenges.
This is not a simple playbook to follow, mainly if you are used to free-form, heated discussions. It also seems quite time-consuming, and it might actually be. However, every minute dedicated to this kind of discussion is fully utilized. When I compare that to a free-form discussion where two people can get stuck debating a minor issue (or trying to understand some basic argument), and the rest of the team just wanders off, I have no doubt which meeting will result in better outcomes. When you also consider the better quality of the inputs to the meeting (thanks to the preparation done by the team), this kind of discussion can quickly become a game-changer.
Pro Tip: The playbook you define is not limited to the meeting itself. It can cover the entire communication flow, including the written arguments prepared before the meeting. You can specify, for example, the length of the shared texts or mandate a specific type of data to support statements. However, you should be extra careful with applying such rules universally, as the nature of the written content is more context-sensitive than the technical aspects of running the meeting.
Making a Decision
Any meeting, and any instance of communication for that matter, should have a goal. Generally speaking, a meeting should not result merely in sharing information. Information sharing is, of course, important, but a meeting is too costly for communicating something unidirectionally. A communication flow that does not result in an operative statement is ineffective because it doesn’t promote any business goal. We expect meetings to result in new decisions or actions derived from the different views and perspectives and their collective processing. When we manage to create equal terms, listen to everyone, avoid bias, and focus on ideas and not personality traits, we are in the best position possible to make a good decision. Which doesn’t mean the decision is easier to make. The call for decision after a balanced discussion is often more challenging than in the typical hijacked meeting because we need to consider more ideas and opinions. But that is precisely what we aimed for: tough decisions based on a more comprehensive view of the challenge at stake.
How the decision is made is also something we need to consider carefully. Bias can creep into the final decision-making act if it is not well thought of. In fact, the two most common ways to reach a decision, reaching a consensus and escalating to a higher rank, are far from ideal.
Reaching a consensus is often being confused with being committed to a decision. Being committed to the decision is crucial, and no team can succeed if decisions are not followed with the intention of making them work. But this doesn’t mean everyone should be convinced by the arguments, to begin with.
Reaching consensus typically requires compromise. In some cases, this is an essential step for finding a solution. But in many other cases, the compromise is the least effective path to follow. A compromise is often less effective than any of the holistic solutions, and the only reason we are willing to compromise is to get everybody on board.
But reaching a consensus is even worse when you realize it actually creates unequal terms. When you aim for a consensus, you can easily find yourself changing a perfectly good idea just to convince the last opposing team member to be on board. This, by definition, gives the people who object more leverage. Their ideas are not necessarily the best, but they get to affect the outcome much more than they would in a different decision-making process.
When making a decision turns into a power play, it will never be done on equal terms.
Acknowledging the inherent problem in reaching a consensus, many teams will take the next popular alternative: asking a higher-ranked manager to make the decision for them. It seems like the easiest solution. The team members are not really accountable for the decision, but we tend to assume they will be committed to it since they must comply with the organizational hierarchy. On the face of things, it is an effective method to make a decision.
But where there is a chance for bias, taking the decision to a higher rank might create less confidence in the process. Some people might feel the game is rigged despite all the effort invested in creating equal terms. If one person gets to decide, they are more likely to be influenced by personal connections or the personal preferences of team members. Some managers will also tend to reach a compromise, assuming this will make more people committed to the decision.
But the biggest problem of escalating the decision-making act is that it does not empower the team. This is the same team who brought all these good ideas. This is the team who will have to execute whatever will be decided. These are the smart, professional people we hired to solve problems and find creative ideas. Wouldn’t it be wiser to let them decide what should be done next?
One possible alternative to traditional decision-making methods is an organizational adaptation of democracy.
You have a team of professionals who just came up with a few solid, well-articulated ideas and took the time to think them through. You hired them because they are professionals, and you picked them for this discussion because they have the relevant skills and knowledge to resolve the issue at stake. Eventually, they (or their teams) will also have to implement the decision. They probably know best the implications of each proposed path. It is only natural that they will be the ones who make the decision. And since we want to avoid forcing ourselves into a consensus, we can use a well-known decision-making method: voting.
The idea of voting to make a decision might sound radical in an organizational context, but is it really? If the company’s board make decisions by voting, why can’t a team of professional do the same? It is easier and yields better results than reaching a consensus, especially when it comes to professional challenges. It is also a great way to create equal opportunity. All the ideas are heard, and each of them has the same chance of being the basis of the decision. When the preceding discussion is not only fair and balanced but also professional and thorough, voting on the best idea is not only possible — it is likely to result in the best outcome.
Of course, for voting-based decision-making to work, everyone must agree that they will be committed to whatever will be decided. All votes are equal, and none of them matters once the decision is made. It is not a trivial rule to follow, but just like in a democracy, nothing will ever work if you don’t accept the result and do your best to make it a success.
But teamocracy is not a full-fledged democracy. There is one critical difference between the two. In a democracy, all citizens get a chance to vote. In a teamocracy, you must carefully pick the right team for each decision.
Nobody imagines the entire organization voting on each professional decision we make. We don’t expect the same forum to vote on long-term strategy, the development of a new feature, and the best design to address a technical problem. Not everyone in the organization can and should be accountable for all these decisions. Not everyone is equipped with the required knowledge and expertise to be involved in all these decisions (even if they can end up being affected by them).
So, how do we choose the right team to have the discussion and make the decision with? The following four criteria are a good place to start:
- They should have relevant knowledge or expertise.
- They are impacted by the challenge in question or one of the ideas.
- They are accountable for a domain related to the challenge in question.
- They are likely to be involved in executing the selected idea.
Not everyone who can contribute to the discussion will necessarily meet all these conditions. In some cases, bringing in someone who doesn’t meet any of these conditions — someone from an entirely different domain — can spice up the discussion creatively. But the people who will make the final decision should probably meet most of the criteria, as they are directly affected by the outcome.
Of course, there is also a matter of representation and scope of responsibility. If we have five teams involved in the issue, each of them made of ten people, we don’t expect 50 people to participate in the discussion and vote. We need to choose one representative with either managerial or technical authority (or both) to represent each team.
Pro Tip: “Making a decision” sounds like a final act concluding the discussion for good, but this doesn’t have to be the case. The process you craft can include monitoring points in which the decision can be revisited based on new information. In fact, by turning decision-making into an evolutionary process (instead of a one-time event), you significantly reduce the risk of making the “wrong” decision. Constantly revisiting decisions and adjusting them to new discoveries and the changing reality has the effect of toning down the discussion in the first place.
If you feel only a few people can typically express themselves in meetings, you should consider a better-balanced framework for decision-making discussions. Apart from improving the outcome of these discussions, your team will feel more empowered and engaged when they share their ideas, and affect the decision.
Of course, a real-world scenario might be more nuanced. You might consider having another round of discussions where people can refine their arguments based on the challenges posed. You can add a free-form session to collect information and craft ideas before the formal decision-making meeting. However you craft the communication and decision-making flow, you must be deliberate about creating equal opportunity for different voices and ideas to be heard while taking out personal traits like charisma out of the equation.
You will definitely have to experiment with the solution and continuously collect feedback to understand what works and what should be improved. Crafting the optimal communication flow should also be subjected to an open discussion in which different voices are heard.