How my employees keep me in check to create more inclusive meetings

I tend to get carried away.

Let me back up. As the CEO of a product consulting company, I get to discuss incredible ideas every single day. These ideas make me excited about my job — sometimes so excited that I steamroll over other people’s contributions trying to share all the things I think we can do. Especially now that I’m in the CEO role, I often feel that having and sharing a vision is a core part of my role.

Part of that’s the problems. When a thorny problem comes up, as a leader you feel pressure to have a vision and steer everyone toward it. Part of it though, is my personality. I took the quiz Liz Wiseman created to accompany her great leadership book, Multipliers. The results showed what many on my team already knew: I’m an off-the-charts “accidental diminisher”, so eager to share my own ideas that I don’t always hear everyone else’s. I don’t mean to do it (hence the word “accidental”) but can tend to steam roll over others when I’m convinced about an idea of mine.

We know firsthand that more, and specifically more diverse, ideas create better products. So I asked my team to reign me in. And when shouting down their boss understandably didn’t work, we decided to prototype a new kind of game to guide our meetings. This new card game would help us to facilitate our trickiest conversations. Just like throwing a yellow card in soccer, everyone in the meeting would get cards they could flash to keep all of us in line. One card would call out beating a dead horse, another interrupting. For my part, I only got three cards — one for each opinion I would be allowed to voice. When my three cards were played, all I could do (for the entire rest of the meeting) was listen, ask questions and encourage other people to share their ideas. It worked! My team was more comfortable checking me, I was able to contribute without dominating, and more ideas were able to be heard.

Then we realized I alone wasn’t keeping our meetings from being great.

(Here are some early drafts of our facilitation cards)

Making meetings more inclusive by curbing bad behavior and promoting good ones

While my enthusiasm may be immense, it is not, in itself, enough to stop people from contributing to meetings. We do an enormous amount at Table XI to create an inclusive workplace that lets diverse people and voices be heard. But we’re all passionate people, and everyone communicates differently. When we saw how well the cards worked for me, we tried to think of what other behaviors we wanted to minimize, and which ones we wanted to grow.

First there were the other bad behaviors — communication antipatterns like going off on a tangent or down a rabbit hole, or chattering in side conversations. Those were relatively easy to identify, and each of those got a card.

(The interrupted card is flashed whenever someone cuts off another team member)

The harder thing was encouraging people who might shy away from participation. We didn’t want anyone to feel overwhelmed or on the spot. We wanted to make space for them. One of our lead developers is normally a very soft-spoken person. He partially inspired the speak up card, which can be played as a nonverbal cue to encourage others to raise their voices, especially when there are remote participants.

Then we have our apprentices and junior team members — people who might not feel comfortable pushing back on someone with a decade more experience. For them, we created a devil’s advocate card. They have to play it during the meeting, and that means they have to challenge someone, even if it’s their boss. It gives them a pass (allowing them to blame any dissent on the game) and it catches mistakes or faulty reasoning we might not have seen. For the people on the other side of that equation, the very experienced folks who always think their ideas are the best (and no one else’s ideas could possibly work), we created an angel’s advocate card. When it’s played, they have to spend the next 30 minutes using only “Yes, and” statements to build on other people’s contributions and encourage other people’s ideas (rather than shoot them down).

Turning a game into a better way of working

We didn’t create these cards just to add play time to our meetings. We created them because when you add levity and humor, it’s easier for people to give real-time feedback without awkwardness. Imagine having a boss that cuts you off all the time… would you feel comfortable correcting them? Personal communication styles are just that — very personal. And people have a hard time giving such personal feedback to each other. So in the end, they say nothing. Or they try to say something by pulling someone aside at the end of a meeting (Ex: “You might not realize it — but you cut me off several times back there in that meeting!”). Of course, when you give delayed feedback, the context is lost and the person receiving the feedback might not recognize if or when it happened.

You can tell someone that they’re interrupting, in the moment, that makes them much more conscious than letting them know after the fact. And because it is a game, people can address difficult topics without creating tension. Flashing the dead horse card always draws a laugh and it also lets you get to the best ideas, quicker — critical when you’re creating a product and useful every single day.

When the cards stop getting thrown, that’s when you really see them working. At first, the interrupting card gets thrown a lot. Then the culture starts to change. People feel empowered to contribute without anyone holding up the speak up card. We started using the cards six months ago, and already there are some cards we don’t need as often now because people are more mindful. That’s a phenomenal outcome when people become more mindful about their own communication patterns and the company’s culture.

Still, there’s more they can do. We know the cards aren’t for every team — you can’t take yourself too seriously, or be too wedded to hierarchy, for example. For the people who can benefit though, we’re putting the cards up on Kickstarter under the name Inclusion Meeting Cards to see if we can bring them to more audiences. We’ll also be using the Kickstarter to collect ideas about how other people might want to use the cards.

If you have any ideas that would make your meetings more inclusive or productive, head to the Kickstarter or email me.