How to Run Psychologically Safe Meetings Creating psychologically safe meetings for your team (and how 360s can help)

In spite of changing and advancing technology, meetings are still the primary way to get things done in organisations. So how do you make them safer? Read this.

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Despite changing and advancing technology, meetings are still the primary mechanism for getting things done in organisations. 

Focused conversations - whether online or face to face - between leaders, colleagues and co-workers - are integral to making decisions, solving problems and moving work forward.

But many people feel overwhelmed by meetings, and no wonder: meetings are taking up more and more of our time. On average, managers spend 35% to 50% of their time in meetings - the more senior the more time in meetings, while 67% of employees complain that meetings hinder productivity

The reality is meetings demand our attention and take our focus away from work we’d like to be doing. 

What’s more, meetings are often poorly timed, badly run, and can be psychologically unsafe places. Unsafe because they exclude people in all kinds of ways that people don't even notice, unless you're the one being excluded.

This can show up as the same handful of loud and enthusiastic people dominating the conversation, so that quieter people can't get a word in. Which means you don't hear their contribution. You don't see their questions in the chat. The quieter voices end up feeling that their opinion doesn’t matter, so why bother.

Or bias and power dynamics in the room mean people don’t feel empowered to challenge or speak up when they disagree with proposals or plans.

For example, amongst our university clients there's a lot of deference to academics. The experienced but non-academic faculty managers can feel their opinion isn't valued. So they don't volunteer their thoughts and opinions - and they're often not asked - because the dominant culture is that they’re there to serve rather than to lead. 

The impact of unsafe meetings

Not feeling empowered to contribute in meetings means that potentially great ideas, solutions and insights are not getting to the table. 

It also impacts on whether your team can perform well - because if people feel excluded, they won’t feel valued or trust their colleagues, and if team members don’t trust each other, they can’t be vulnerable and you can't explore disagreement and conflict.

If you haven't got a safe space where you can explore conflict, it's very hard for a group to really gel - and you don’t get the diversity of opinion that is needed to find the best solutions.

An example
A manager we work with was very frustrated that members of his team weren't performing to the standard he expected. He had meetings with his team and thought he had been pretty clear about what he needed: “Please can you do this analysis and get back to me telling me what's going to happen.” Everyone said, “yes,”... and then did nothing about it.

Three weeks later, the manager discovers that the work hasn’t been done and calls a new meeting to ask again. He feels very frustrated, which he doesn’t contain. People respond with defensive behaviours, and he becomes even more agitated. 

The root of the issue? The team is overwhelmed by work. They're incredibly busy. They find it very hard to prioritise. They're not doing the most important things. They actually feel very vulnerable: they don't know how to do what their manager is asking, and they don't feel safe enough to ask. 

In the next meeting with their manager, things feel clear and they again say yes to what is needed. But afterwards life and other work gets in the way. They are overwhelmed again - and the work the manager wants doesn’t get done. 

Meanwhile the manager becomes more frustrated, that frustration carries over into his behaviour, making meetings even less of a safe space.

In situations like this, the harder you push, the less safe people feel and the further away they get from being able to do what you want. People should be able to do X, Y, and Z for you. But they can't right now. Or they’re not capable.

Pushing them harder isn't going to work. You need a different strategy.

So how do you create a safe space to resolve situations like this? How do you create the conditions where people feel safe enough to speak up and contribute honestly and authentically in meetings?

Here’s our guide to running psychologically safer meetings.

9 ways to run psychologically safer meetings

There are several ways you can make meetings a safer space for all participants.

1. Split the roles

Typically meetings have a chairperson. This makes for a very hierarchical structure. There's also an awful lot for one person to do as the chair of a meeting:
  • running through the agenda
  • making sure everybody gets heard
  • directing the conversation to a focal point
  • making a decision
  • keeping the time
  • note taking. 
And in the process of running a meeting, chairs are often so busy or not skilled enough to think about the climate of the conversation, ie how people are feeling (creating safe spaces is all about feelings and emotions.)

What to do 
There are various roles in a meeting, so split them up and ask different people to do them:
  • Chairperson: their job is to get through the business of the meeting, 
  • Timekeeper: keep track of time and hold the whole room to account on time
  • Note taker: take notes in the meeting and circulate after. 
Climate: responsible for monitoring the emotional climate, and to help the meeting be more inclusive for quieter voices. *

* examples of things the ‘climate’ person could say and do: 
  • “I can see that so and so is trying to say something and they haven’t had a chance, perhaps we could go to them.” 
  • “I can feel that there's quite a lot of anger here. Perhaps we should pause a minute, check how everyone is feeling and try to understand what the issues are.” 
  • Teasing out things that the chair might be missing, specifically how people respond and what their emotional position is in that meeting, in order to make it easier for disagreement to surface.

2. Check-in at the start 

At the start of a meeting, take 10 minutes to go round to find out where people's heads are at by asking how they are feeling and what's going on for them - inviting people to go a little bit deeper by modelling it yourself.

Sometimes people will share insights from their lives, you’ll start to see the person not the role - building connection and going beyond the task. There's a richness to that which is appreciated. It builds trust and facilitates effective working. 

3. Make sure everyone is included

To avoid the same people always talking, invite people in the room to speak one-by-one in turn and share what they think on a topic. 

For example, “here’s the topic of discussion, we need to make a decision. You’ve already read the report, let’s go around each of us, one-by-one, starting on my left, everybody will have one minute to say what they think.”

4. Use the 1-2-4-all tool

Another good way to make sure everyone is included. 
  • Break the meeting up into small groups
  • First of all, ask people to make some notes on their own (the “1”), and then have a chat in pairs (the “2”).
  • Then depending on the size of the group they might go into fours (the “4”).
  • The four report back and feed their discussions into the rest of the meeting.
In this way everybody is included in the conversation, particularly if it's a big meeting, as opposed to all sitting around a table trying to have a conversation between all of you. 

5. Gamify interactions

Here’s two tools you could use to make it easier to hear different perspectives:

i. The challenge card
This is a good meeting tool used by US Naval submarine commander David Marquet, author of Turn the Ship Around! Marquet designed tools and tricks designed to stop people blindly following the rules. This is one: 
  • Prepare some playing cards - all of them black cards, apart from one that is red. 
  • Shuffle the cards and dish them out in the meeting.
  • The person who has the red card has a specific job in the meeting: to challenge everything. Even if they agree with the proposal, they have to play the role of doubter. 
  • Their job is to say, “hang on a minute, what about X?” (Try it. It's amazing how many other people then chip in with, “Yes, and what about Y?” )
  • Otherwise a group will often just find consensus around the strongest voice or the most powerful person in the room, and won't actually have expressed any concerns or doubts, so missing all that richness. That’s not to say you don't do the thing, but at least everyone is clear about the risks.

ii. Six Hats
There is a version of ‘the Challenge Card’ tool that is more complex: Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats.
In this tool, there are 6 different perspectives or hats to adopt:
1. neutral and fact-based
2. logical-negative
3. lateral creative thinking
4. emotion
5. logical-positive
6. encompasses everything and is in control. 

You either give people a different hat, and they have to contribute from that hat’s perspective. Or you do it in rounds, with one hat per round - so that everyone's looking at the question from a logical point of view, or an emotional point of view and so on. 

[We like the Challenge Card tool. It’s simple and it's just focused on the bit people find difficult, which is bringing any dissonance into a conversation.]

6. Good chairing

Good chairing is a staple for running good meetings. Here’s best practice for good chairing:
  • Signalling what's going on
  • Replaying what the decision or action points are
  • Clarifying who's going to be responsible for each of those things
  • Making sure that the work is distributed evenly. So it's not always a small handful of people who do all of it - which can often lead to resentment either from the person who’s taken on all the work or others who feel they haven't got a chance to contribute. 

7. Things to do outside the meeting

Making a meeting safer is not only about what happens in the room. It’s also what happens before and after the meeting:

Before the meeting
  • Make sure that everyone's had a chance to read all the materials and the agenda has gone out in good time.
  • Invite people to add to the agenda. 
  • Request that people contact you if they have accessibility needs - do they need support to access this meeting and how could that be accommodated? (For example by producing documents in ways that can be read by screen readers.)
  • Invite people to write to the chair beforehand with any concerns that might be coming up.

After the meeting
Get the minutes out quickly and invite people to edit them to make sure that they feel they have been  represented fairly, as often the minutes become important documents. 

If someone feels that their point hasn't been reflected, this is an opportunity for them to get it in. Otherwise it's not uncommon for people to summarise meetings in ways that are unconsciously advantageous to their point of view and other people can feel misrepresented. 

8. Acknowledge people's roles in the meeting and why they're there 

Another thing you can do to include people, to help them feel relevant, valued, and that they belong in a group is to acknowledge their role in the meeting and make clear to others why they’re there - for example, someone might be there to represent an interest group or contribute in a specific way.

This might require the relevant person to be clear about what they're not there to do. For example, someone told a story about how she was the only woman in the meeting. She was expected to speak for all women, including women who had different job roles to her. She was able to stick up for herself and say, ”I can't do that. I’m here in my professional capacity. And I'm here because my skill set and area of responsibilities are X, Y, Z and if you need an opinion on A, B, C you should go see this person”. 

9. Check-out at the end

Similar to the check in at the start, have a check out at the end. Ask: “How was the meeting? Was there anything about the meeting you found difficult or frustrating? Let’s have it out, let's get used to giving each other feedback.” 

If the feedback is that the meeting didn't work - that may be uncomfortable to hear - but you can reflect and think about how it could be changed, or how other people could get involved and take on some of the roles. 

NB Safe spaces are not about avoiding conflict

The thing about safe spaces: they aren't about avoiding conflict. If someone gets emotional or is really strong in a challenge, you could feel embarrassed and you might want to pass that off or smooth it over. Actually creating safe spaces requires you not to do that. 

Because if you avoid the discomfort, you've left that person feeling unheard and unacknowledged, you've signalled to other people that ‘we don't do that’ and that if you are awkward or your opinion doesn’t conform, there's no space for you in this meeting. 

It’s important to make meetings a place where you can have conflict, and when there is that you don't get judged for it. If you can do that the work you do will be more powerful, more effective, and will go deeper. 

How 360’s can help create safe meeting spaces

It's often difficult for people to tell their colleagues or their boss what they're thinking, because people are really frightened of giving feedback. It doesn't feel safe - the recipient will likely get defensive, and it might get awkward and a bit emotionally charged, and who wants to go there?

Having an environment where it is possible to give feedback in person, and it is easy to say, is rare and requires quite a lot of work. Unfortunately teams usually feel they don't have the time to do that work. 

Fortunately 360s can help. A 360-degree review creates a parallel space that establishes feedback safety in a number of ways:
  1. it's not confrontational, because you're not physically present when you're doing it, 
  2. it’s anonymous, making it possible to say what you're thinking without fear of retribution or recrimination, 
  3. good 360s encourage you to really think about your feedback. Bashing something or someone isn't that helpful, but answering nuanced questions requires you to be thoughtful about what's going on. 
  4. In a good 360 the questions are framed in an open way so that you can get both the good and the bad across - there's very rarely all of one and none of the other. 
Once a team gets more comfortable with giving and receiving feedback, this makes it a lot easier to speak up and be honest in meetings.

A note about participating in a 360

Being the subject of a 360-degree review can be an extremely alarming experience. You may be keenly aware of your weaknesses, and think everyone is going to hone in and amplify them and destroy your self esteem. But that doesn't really happen. People see your strengths too.

So having a safe space to review the feedback is really important. We don't recommend reading a 360-feedback report on your own, we recommend looking at it with somebody who can create some balance against your catastrophizing. Ideally in person.

And don’t read it three weeks before that meeting and then dwell on it, losing sleep every night. Read it on the day. Recognise that it's never as bad as you think it's going to be, it's usually really positive.

Our 360 degree reviews

A 360 degree feedback review can be a useful part of a feedback culture. If you’re looking for good 360 review software that supports the growth of your employees and your organisation, and removes the complicated admin that can accompany 360’s, use a tool like AdviceSheet, it is really that simple.
AdviceSheet has:
  • Transparent pricing
  • Automates the process
  • Anonymous participants
  • Confidential reports
  • Free from meaningless metrics
  • Questions that stimulate insightful answers