In the second article in our ‘How To’ series, Nicole Abi-Esber, a doctoral student in Organizational Behavior at HBS shares her thoughts on running effective team meetings.
Make sure to check out the first article in our ‘How To’ series about Dividing Equity, Getting Incorporated and Other Details When Beginning Your Business here.
We all have those meetings that we dread seeing come up on our calendar every week. What causes some meetings to be efficient, innovative, and even fun, while others seem political, indecisive, and feel like the same outcome could have been accomplished with just an email? And why do we feel empowered to speak up in some meetings, while we feel that we need to withhold our voices or be very careful about what we say in others?
I study organizational behavior at HBS, and academics in my field have explored these questions. What they’ve found is that the ability to speak up and express your opinions in meetings is highly related to each individual’s engagement during the meeting and the overall productivity of the meeting. The number one most important factor in predicting a successful meeting — more than how long the team has been together, what department or industry they are in, or any characteristics about the leader — is psychological safety.
What is psychological safety? It refers to a climate in which all team members feel empowered to share their thoughts and opinions — regardless of if their opinion is unpopular, or if they are new to the team, or in a junior position. In psychologically safe workplaces, employees know that their opinions will be heard and respected. Professor Amy Edmondson here at HBS defines psychological safety as: ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”
Can you remember a time when you held back an opinion, maybe because it was critical of another team member, or because you didn’t want to rock the boat after a plan had already been agreed on? Do you think it would have been better for your team if they addressed the challenging question?
The research says yes. In another article by HBS professors David Garvin, Amy Edmondson, and Francesca Gino, they write that the most psychologically safe teams feel comfortable “disagreeing with peers or authority figures, asking naive questions, owning up to mistakes, and presenting a minority viewpoint.”
If you’re interested in fostering a psychologically safe workplace as an entrepreneur running a new team, there are a few steps you can take. Companies like Square and Amazon have processes to make sure that everybody is on the same page before starting a meeting. Amazon famously institutes a set “quiet time” in the beginning of each meeting for all attendees to review a memo prepared by the meeting organizer, to make sure everybody is on equal footing before the discussion begins. Square takes it a step further, having entire meetings in silence, with members commenting on shared Google documents. Alyssa Henry, a VP at Square, implemented this meeting design after being frustrated that many of her employees who were minorities, women, or just not naturally extroverted were continually spoken-over and interrupted. By holding a virtual meeting, not only is everyone able to comment and type independently, but they also have a record of the meeting for the future.
If you don’t want to overhaul your whole meeting structure, there are smaller steps that you can take to have better meetings and a more inclusive team culture. As you’re launching your new team, ensure you create a culture of respecting dissenting opinions. If you disregard a concern raised by a team member (and especially if they are new), this will establish a norm in your team that criticism is not appreciated. Team members will learn not to rock the boat, and you will miss out on challenging questions and insights. By respecting dissenting opinions, you can avoid creating this culture of silence. You can also encourage new ideas. If you feel that your team is hesitant to criticize, challenge them to brainstorm new ways to tackle a problem that you’re facing. It will be easier for them to offer suggestions in the form of new ideas, until they feel confident enough to offer direct criticism.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to acknowledge your own mistakes. By admitting your shortcomings, you will create an environment in which you will be more approachable to your employees. They will feel safer talking about their own mistakes or concerns that they have spotted.