How to encourage honest discussion at company meetings

April 15, 2019

By Paul Axtell at Harvard Business Review on April 11, 2019

I recently met with 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 each began by describing a meeting we remembered as especially powerful.

One story stood out.

My 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, candor, and quality of conversation in your own meetings by focusing on two key areas: giving permission and creating safety.

Here’s how.

Let’s start with permission. 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 to have a “no secrets” meeting, Josh was giving his team permission to display a level of candor that isn’t 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 — to say exactly what we are thinking and be respected for saying it.

In your own meetings, talk about permission up front — it’s best to address it directly rather than assume it’s 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 or gets repetitive
  • 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

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