I RECENTLY met a group of managers to discuss ways to improve meetings. Our goal was to figure out how to create a space that people actually look forward to being in. We began by describing a meeting we remembered as especially powerful.
One story stood out. A colleague told us about a time when he was a young engineer working on several project teams in a manufacturing facility.
He said: “Josh, my manager, would take everyone out for pizza when he came to the factory, and we’d have a ‘no secrets’ meeting. Josh asked us about whatever he wanted to know and we did the same in return. It was a meeting where everyone had permission to say or ask anything. It was amazing.”
Josh used these meetings to discover how his team was doing, how their projects were progressing and what they needed in terms of support and resources. He asked broad questions to initiate open conversation:

  • What do you think I need to know;
  • Where are you struggling?
  • What are you proud of? 

There was no pressure to have a perfect answer. The only requirement was to be honest and sincere. Of course, it helped that Josh was a thoughtful, authentic and caring manager – qualities needed to create the psychological safety such a conversation requires.
The quest for better meetings ultimately lies in leading with mutual respectful, inclusivity, and establishing a space that is safe enough for people to speak their minds. You may not need to do exactly what Josh did, but you can increase the freedom, candour and quality of conversation in your own meetings by focusing on two key areas: giving permission and creating safety.

Here’s how:


Permission to say or ask anything is priceless. It allows us to fully express ourselves: to seek what we want, to give feedback, to speak up about issues when we find the need.
By announcing that he would like a “no-secrets” meeting, Josh was giving his team permission to display a level of candour that is not reached in most settings.
He asked those who spoke not to hold back or edit their thoughts. He asked those who listened to give their peers a chance to be fully heard, which is what we all want.
In your own meetings, talk about permission up front. It is best to address it directly rather than assume it is already there. What permission would you like from the group so that you can lead effectively? What permission does the group need from you to successfully participate?

As a leader, ask your team permission to:

Keep the conversation on track when it diverges;

Call on people who have not yet spoken;

Hold people back if they are dominating the conversation;

Ask clarifying questions when you need someone to elaborate.

Empower your team by reminding them that they have permission to ask questions at any time, invite colleagues into the conversation if they have not spoken, ask to spend extra time on a topic, ask other people to say more about where they stand on an issue and to express concerns that have not been fully addressed.
Finally, encourage your team and yourself to ask for permission before making a comment. It will help ensure that your comments are non-threatening and received thoughtfully.
Before speaking out, say may I ask you something, may I tell you something, may I give you some coaching or may I push back a bit on what you are saying?
If that feels like too much to remember, the main lesson is that you and your team have a right to ask for whatever you need to be effective in a meeting – to lead for results, to fully express yourselves and to add value to the discussion.

The degree to which a person feels safe in a meeting setting is largely based on their previous experiences.
Many of us have at one point or another experienced feeling as if we were not heard or appreciated when we spoke up.
But when people feel their comments will be listened to and treated with respect, they are more likely to be vulnerable and say exactly what they are thinking.
Conversations become broader and deeper when everyone is involved and feels safe enough to speak their mind.
To create psychological safety during a meeting, ask the group to devote their full attention to each person who speaks, allow each person to take their time to complete their thoughts, ask follow-up questions for clarity if necessary, share what is valuable about someone’s question or comment, use people’s names and refer back to earlier comments they made, invite people who have not spoken into the conversation, answer any and all questions truthfully, summarise what you learnt, explain what actions you will take to put those insights to use and ask your team for their suggestions as well and acknowledge the quality of the conversation and thank the group for it
After the meeting, follow up by, completing the action items by the deadlines you set, not sharing the conversation with others without permission, sending written thank you notes to participants (when appropriate), following up with people to ensure that their comments were addressed to their satisfaction – people do not just want to belong, they want to contribute.
You can give your team the opportunity to do so by applying the above principles.
In the process of having more candid, mutually respectful conversations, your team will become more cohesive and able to work together more powerfully.
They may even begin to look forward to your meetings because of the remarkable conversations that permission and safety create.
Better still, you may even start to look forward to leading those meetings.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.

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