Enhanced Engagement Techniques


Tapping into the Knowledge Present in Your Meetings

Getting oil out of the ground is much tougher than most people think. Appreciating that some of these misguided perceptions may have been shaped by watching Jed Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies strike oil when his errant bullet hit the ground, the process is not that simple. Historically, after the “easy” oil was pumped out, most fields were left with significant resources still in the ground. Producers regularly walked away from these fields to pump *easy* oil in other fields. However, after the easy opportunities became tougher to find, companies invested in enhanced oil recovery technologies, and producers returned to the depleted fields and extracted another 20-60% of the available oil. Imagine how much more efficient they could have been had they used the technology when the initial infrastructure was in place!

This same concept can apply to uncovering knowledge present in meetings. As decades of research show, attendees’ knowledge, insights, and ideas are only minimally accessed during meetings. Per a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, the author asked employees at a large global bank this question: “When you have a contribution to make in a meeting, how often are you able to do so?” Only 35% said they felt able to contribute all the time. Another study found that 59% of those surveyed reported that meetings were the most wasteful part of their workday, largely because of the lack of inclusion. In my 25+ years of teaching facilitation workshops, I frequently hear participants noting how “I often go to meetings where I never even speak, and it’s getting worse because of virtual meetings.”

Like the old oil fields—despite the significant costs and time associated with bringing a group of people together to develop strategies, resolve issues and create innovative solutions—meeting leaders and team facilitators often walk away from meetings having only superficially tapped into the “knowledge field” that exists in their meeting rooms. Given the percentage of time we spend in meetings, why does this make perfect sense>

Why don’t more people speak up in meetings? Why is there more talk outside in the halls than in the meeting room? Why do so many log into virtual meetings, put themselves on mute, then turn to other activities?

While some might say that the attendees simply do not care or are unmotivated, these attendees represent the available knowledge field. What are the governing issues? Let’s take a look.

Personality Influences

To begin, multiple studies have shown that personality style is a significant contributing factor. Susan Cain in her best-selling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, convincingly illustrates how introverts–a group well-populated by science and engineering professions–are often overwhelmed by the more vocally dominant extroverts in the room. Faced with the chorus of voices, they simply remain quiet. This point was made abundantly clear to me when, upon completing a decision-making meeting, I walked up to a very bright (and introverted) petro-physicist, and asked why she had not shared more about her perspective. She replied, “Walk into that hailstorm of debate? No way. That is just not something that I do.” The oil left behind.

Culture and Gender Influences

Cultural and gendered factors play an important role in what is or is not expressed in a meeting. While the American individualist- and extrovert-dominated culture applauds those who readily speak up, other cultures place more value on group harmony and would never consider directly opposing a higher power or subject-matter expert in the room. I recall a cross-cultural meeting in which an American expat working in a Chinese business repeatedly (and strongly) expressed his views while a Chinese participant stared quietly at the table. When I intervened by commenting that I had captured his thoughts and suggested we hear from others, he replied, “If they had something to say, why don’t they just say it!” Oil left behind.

Number of meeting participants

Another factor discussed in my workshops is the impact of the number of people in a meeting. Sure, it’s good to have lots of people in a meeting so you can get more ideas heard. HOWEVER, you will soon approach my characterization of the meeting participant “law of diminishing returns” factor. After you reach over ten-to-twelve participants, participation levels of engagement fall off; fewer people voluntarily voice ideas. (Think about how few people speak up during large company town halls.) More people does not equate to more input.

Meeting Medium

How do you gather? Virtual meetings are the new go-to way to avoid travel costs and participant disruptions. However, there are downsides. According to anthropologists and sociologists, virtual meetings negatively affect the level of inclusivity. The reason? Team leaders run virtual sessions as they would in-person meetings, leading to increased wasted time (reported by meeting attendees). How do attendees respond? Bring other work to the meeting! And get ready for this statistic: people are 3x less likely to talk in a virtual session than they would in a face-to-face meeting. More oil left behind.

Pervasive Biases

There are multiple cognitive and motivational biases that limit engagement and impede the expression of different perspectives. (Ground rules that state, “Say what is on your mind” have no effect in overcoming many of these biases.) One such bias is the conformity bias. People want to be accepted; who wants to be seen as someone who is not a “team player”? For those holding alternative views that may seem confrontive to team members, adjusting their thoughts to align with that of the majority–and never say what was initially on their minds–is a common action. Other biases can lead team participants to think that the group is more informed than they are. As a result, the participants change their thinking. Finally, the anchoring bias is well known for its profound ability to curb a diverse range of responses or assessments. (Yep, massive amounts of oil left untouched.)

Given these various influences, it is no surprise that participants leave meetings feeling like their ideas are never heard, why the meeting or workshop was such a waste of time, and why facilitators are frustrated that no new insights emerged. Like the oil fields of old, valuable insights and ideas are left unexplored, untapped and unavailable.

What can be done to address this loss of valuable input?

As a team leader or facilitator, employing more sophisticated techniques will increase engagement levels and the quality of input. These techniques include:

  1. Ask, “What question do you want to have answered in this meeting?” In asking this question, you are getting the participants to put their “psychological skin” in the game. Rather than them just sitting back with arms crossed, ready to critique when it fits, you essentially are saying, “Au contraire. This is your meeting and what do you want out of it?”
  2. Change the way you facilitate virtual meetings. Virtual meetings are vastly different from face-to-face meetings. Therefore, your meeting leadership or facilitation style must change as well. A quick tip? Call people out by name all the time. All. The. Time. Then follow that using the Order-of-Go. Ask “I’m interested in hearing everyone’s thoughts on Stephan’s proposal. Let’s start with Inga and then I’ll follow the list of names on the Team’s screen. What are each of you thinking as you listen to the proposal?” You can check out some other tips for facilitating a virtual meeting and an example of the Order of Go tool in this video.
  3. Use a tool called Brainwriting. Unlike brainstorming, where people are asked to call out their ideas, brainwriting requires that participants first write down their ideas and then read off what they have written. These two aspects make brainwriting a wonderful tool for “drawing out” input from quieter members and ensuring that people do not change their minds because of something someone else in the room says before they have the chance to speak. You can find out more about this tool in my Ultimate Facilitation Tool Kit.
  4. Ask different questions. Ask open questions (as opposed to the closed question of, “Does anyone have any questions?”). Use the word “how” instead of “why” when exploring the thinking. Ask, “How did you arrive at that conclusion?” Why tends to elicit casual thinking response and often includes defensive statements whereas how reveals a person’s set of assumptions and rationale associated with their thinking process. (See Asking is Better Than Telling for more on the topic of question structures and wording choice.)

Organizations overflow with people who possess a wealth of knowledge and insights yet-to-be-considered. Meeting participants would loved to be engaged. Participants have questions that can enlighten or redirect the conversation and/or are pondering challenges to the unquestioned answer.

There is so much more to tap into; don’t leave this valuable thinking behind.

What's your question?