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Logo for Dear Good People with thumbnail picture of Dolly's book The Person You Mean to Be
Meetings can crush your soul. 

My personal experience -- and the prevailing wisdom of management and psychology research -- is that meetings default to patterns like these:  
  • Whoever speaks first is likely to set the direction of the conversation.  
  • The higher-power, more extroverted, majority-demographic people are more likely to take up disproportionate airtime, receive credit, be given the benefit of the doubt, and interrupt others.  
  • The larger the group, the less meaningful the conversation (and the less likely we are to break out into more meaningful, smaller group discussions because doing so is time- and space-consuming in the physical world).
  • Key information is less likely to be shared when it is already known by others; lesser-known but important information tends to not be shared broadly.
  • Whatever we did in the last meeting, we are likely to do again in the next meeting.

Sound familiar? 

The result is predictable: a sub-optimal, sub-inclusive meeting.
Funny mock up of a Fisher-Price toy called Soul-Crushing Meeting featuring kids with varied emotions around a conference table.

We can do better

Whether you are running the meeting or just participating in it, there are ways to make it better and more inclusive.  And, believe it or not, in some ways, that’s easier to do on virtual platforms.  So, while many of us are stuck on our screens, let’s make the most of it and use some of the unique features offered by virtual platforms for better inclusion.

Here are 15 ways to make your virtual meetings better and more inclusive:

  1. Have a facilitator Too many in-person meetings flounder because there is no one at the wheel.  The result is airtime hogging and groupthink, which are inclusion crushers.  In virtual platforms, there is a clearly designated host.  Use this clarity as a nudge towards having a clearly designated facilitator who will balance airtime and bring out a range of perspectives.
  1. Bring in more perspectives:  Speaking of more perspectives, why talk about customers, when you can have an actual customer zoom in to your meeting?  Why guess what employees in the field would think, when you can have actual field employees share their thoughts?  Take advantage of the virtual format to break out of the homogeneous networks that define our workplaces, levels on the org chart, communities, and social circles so that you can hear a broader array of perspectives.
  1. Put names with faces:  In many online platforms, such as zoom, each participant’s name is visible.  This creates a better opportunity to learn people’s names if you are meeting people for the first time (or like me, can’t remember names of people you have met in the past).  You can also grab a screenshot which you can use as a reference for future interactions.
  1. Clarify nicknames and preferred names:  Platforms like zoom allow the participant to edit their name as it appears on screen.  So, rather than always trying to guess which Rajiv goes by Raj and which goes by Rajiv, it will be visible to all.  We can then take ownership for referring to people as they wish, not in whatever way is most convenient or memorable for us (which will inevitably favor the majority group). 
  1. Learn how to pronounce people's name:  Have everyone share the phonetic spelling / pronunciation of their name in the chat box.  For example, I might type in "Dolly = dah-LEE which rhymes with trolley and golly + Chugh = 'u' sounds like oo in 'good' and 'gh' is a hard g."  Each participant should do this, not just those with “hard” names.  Taking shared ownership of learning how to say people’s names is one step towards reversing the heartbreaking benefits which Dr. Sonia Kang and her co-authors find for anglocizing one’s name (and "whitening" one's resume) in the workplace. And, speaking for my embarrassed self, I am less likely to avoid interacting with someone (aka - be the opposite of inclusive) when I have confidence that I am saying their name correctly.
  1. Share pronouns:  Many of us grew up at a time when preferred pronouns were not commonly shared so we have some catching up to do about gender identity.  One best practice is to include preferred pronouns with one’s name to guide others.  Again, using the option to edit your name allows for this, or it can also be done in a chat function.  So, my name might read “Dolly Chugh - she/her.”  Again, it’s ideal if everyone does this, not just a subset of participants.   
Alt text: Screen shot of a zoom call featuring a reunion of the cast of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, with their names and pronouns visible.
  1. Read the room:  Many platforms offer you a way to take the pulse of the room.  Break up groupthink with a poll, which can be anonymous or not.  This allows you to read the room and allows participants to take less popular stands without having to verbally navigate through those offering the majority opinion.  Sharing the result of a poll can shift the group norm in an instant, by revealing a previously invisible perspective.                            
  2. Elicit more ideas at once:  In a virtual meeting, you can bring out many thoughts simultaneously by asking a question to which people can respond in the chat function.  Then, the facilitator can call on people to discuss.   Keep in mind that many people find it difficult to process both auditory and text inputs at the same time, so it’s ideal to allow time for people to type in their responses.  Also keep in mind that people using text readers will end up with the chat and the verbal discussion talking over each other, so it’s important to either space things out or know your audience on this one. 
People working on laptops. Black woman has a digital-like chat box next to her.
  1. Make recordings and transcripts available afterwards:  Consider recording as a way to support those who would benefit from listening at another time or with the option to pause.  For example, people with pandemic parenting/caregiving responsibilities (who are disproportionately women) may need to multitask during the meeting. The recording allows them to listen later and stay in the loop without burdening others.  Of course, recording may make some uncomfortable or be problematic for other reasons so feel that out and be sure to have permission before recording.
  2. Offer closed captioning:  Some platforms offer automatic closed captioning, which can be useful in a wide variety of circumstances, such as when someone has hearing impairments, when some participants are engaging in a non-native language and when individuals are trying to block out background noise while listening.  This feature may need to be enabled so do some research into what your version of the platform offers.  And, it's rarely fully accurate so realize its limitations and edit afterwards.
  3. Pivot in and out of smaller discussions:  Breakout discussions are an excellent way to improve meeting performance and team relations.  In the virtual world, it can be done in a click. Randomly assigning groups or pre-assigning diverse groups are both good modalities which can build relationships across all kinds of differences and boundaries.  The key to a good breakout is clear instructions about timing, purpose, and deliverables (if any).  No need to endure default big group discussions.  
  1. Practice reading non-verbals: Use virtual meetings to sharpen your non-verbal reading skills.  I’ve been stunned to witness what non-verbal researchers have known all along -- words are just a slice of what we communicate.  In the real world, one can not stare for prolonged periods of time at people trying to read their non-verbal reactions.  In the virtual world, bring it on.  Stay in gallery view to watch the group or pin a particular video to be visible throughout the meeting.  I call it “zoom-watching.”  Send someone a private chat and watch them read it. Tell a joke and watch how people react.  Listen to an argument and watch people cringe.  Observe the impact that code-switching demands place on colleagues who hold marginalized identities. Use what you notice to step in as an ally.  Important:  be curious not creepy in your staring. 
Drawing of a diverse group of six people in a virtual meeting on a computer monitor. Illustrates varying facial expressions.
  1. Assume accessibility is part of your job:  I am embarrassed at how new I am to learning about accessibility and accommodations for a wide range of disabilities.  I am learning so much from accessibility and inclusion expert Courtney Craven, beginning with this guide and this guide.  I have been reactive in the past, compliantly doing what is suggested in a legal-y sounding email from an office whose job is to ensure accommodations are made, or a student specifically requests, and that's it. If I get a document saying a student needs extra time on an exam, I grant it, without asking the student what is helpful to their learning outside of the exam, for example.  Honestly, it never crossed my mind to think about it. I want to and can do better.  I am going to devote a future newsletter to this topic as I deepen my own learning and practice so stay tuned but in the meantime, join me in the realization that this is not someone else's job. 
  1. Ask about accessibility needs: One thing I am learning is that oftentimes people experience backlash and bureaucracy when they try to advocate for their needs in schools and organizations, leading them to silence their needs.  That's what makes my passive and reactive approach the wrong approach.  I am going to be proactively asking my students and colleagues, “Are there ways in which the technology we are using can be made more accessible?  Are there practices we are using in our meetings that are not working for you?”  My new understanding is that I need to ask everyone this question, not just people who have identified themselves as needing an accommodation.  
  1. Check in and relaunch: You've never had more freedom to say "let's have a do-over" than 2020.  More than ever, we are all learning as we go. So, proactively ask people what challenges they are having staying engaged, offering input, and earning respect in virtual meetings.  In fact, Dr. Tsedal Neeley, Harvard Business School professor and author of the forthcoming book Remote Work Revolution, has sage advice.  She proposes that we “relaunch” our remote teams as a way to help everyone orient to new realities.  Think of these 15 tips for more inclusive virtual meetings as one area of that relaunch.
Pretty picture of a path through grass with a beautiful sky.  Quote is printed over photo reading "If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings'."  Quote from Dave Barry

Virtual meetings are an opportunity for deeper inclusion

Yes, no doubt, much is lost in this new virtual world.  So much.

I miss three people telling a funny story in unison. I yearn for accidental eye contact, however awkward it sometimes is. I barely remember what it’s like to see people’s footwear.  

Still, much can also be gained in the virtual world.  There are ways to foster inclusion in a virtual gathering that are not available in person.

Meetings - whether physical or virtual - should be a key lever in your diversity and inclusion strategy, as I wrote about here.  So, try or suggest one or two of these ideas in your next virtual meeting.  More inclusive meetings are better meetings.

Let’s keep going

Our actions matter.  Meetings are one of many ways we can be anti-racist.  In June, I wrote about The 10% More Rule as a way to not get overwhelmed by hard issues like racial injustice.  (Remember - 10% more mortified if you're new to the work, 10% more terrified if you're not new, and 10% more "satisfied" if you are veteran of the work.)  In July, I offered 5 ways to respond to people posting racist stuff.  Many of you have written me to share how you have been putting those ideas to work. I’m so inspired by the ways in which so many of us are opening ourselves up to learning.  That’s what being good-ish is about.

Honestly, being good-ish is what is keeping me emotionally afloat and hopeful these days, about the world and my role in it.  There is no growth in being a static "good person."  Being good-ish is the ultimate commitment to hope and action.  So, let's keep learning and let's keep going.  

To that end, every month, I’ll send you the Dear Good People newsletter, with a five minute read about the psychology of good people and what it means to be a “good-ish” person. Just like my book, the newsletter will feature evidence-based and actionable advice which I am trying to use myself, all written in and for today's times. Feel free to forward or post the newsletter as I want it to reach as many hearts and minds as possible.  And let me know what you think by hitting reply to this email. 

Please take good care of yourself and others.  Thanks for growing with me,

Dolly Chugh photoDolly Chugh signature


This month's artwork credits from top: Unknown (toy), Will at Home via Snapchat (Fresh Prince reunion zoom), (photo), Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay (cartoon zoom screen) and @quotefancy (Dave Barry quote).

I am indebted to Courtney Craven for such generous, clear, and patient coaching on inclusion and accessibility.

Ongoing gratitude to Evelyn Parker and Katie Sutton for help with writing, design, programming, and promotion of this newsletter.

Dolly Chugh is the Jacob B. Melnick Term Professor at the New York University Stern School of Business in the Department of Management and Organizations. She studies the psychology of good people and teaches leadership/management courses. All views are her own.

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