My first job out of college was as a software engineer for a computer graphics firm. It was a plum role in an industry that was just emerging in the late 1980s—just at the time when the first spreadsheets and word processors were being developed.
As you might imagine, it was highly unusual for a young woman to become a software engineer in that era. I had received my degree from the University of California, San Diego, where I was regularly the only woman in the lecture hall. To say that I was in the “out group” would be a vast understatement.
In my new job, I found myself in a similarly alien world, the only woman in a group of dozens of men. In many ways, I was very different from my co-workers. Most of them arrived at the office around noon and worked until midnight. As an early riser, I was at my desk every morning by 8 o’clock. Socially, I was quite an outlier, as well. The men would call it quits at the office around midnight, then proceed to battle each other on computer games into the wee hours of the morning—long after I was asleep at home.
While the day-to-day work and social dynamics were alienating, it was in meetings where I felt the most angst. I struggled to find my voice, self-conscious of being new to the company, not to mention being the youngest person—and the only woman—in the room. I found myself wanting to contribute, but unable to, for fear that I’d say something stupid—something that would reveal the “gap” I perceived in my knowledge and experience compared with my peers. I was constantly afraid I would make it clear to everyone that I didn’t really deserve to be there.
What I know now is that I was suffering from the Impostor Syndrome: my lack of confidence, fear of rejection, and persistent feelings of being a fraud were all classic symptoms. Impostor Syndrome is estimated to affect 70% of the US population at least once in their lives. For many it’s a persistent pattern with little relief. With all of that in play, it simply was not safe for me to find my sense of psychological safety in meetings.
Few of us who have been in the workforce for many years can remember (or relate to) the anxiety and fear that meetings create for some—especially those who suffer from the Impostor Syndrome. But we can certainly recognize and empathize with the value we’re missing out on when key members of our teams fail to speak up and contribute in meetings.
This point was brought home to me recently after the head of Engineering for a tech firm scored relatively highly on several Impostor behaviors after taking our Impostor Breakthrough Assessment. He contacted me to talk about his results overall, and, more importantly, to explore ways he, as a leader, could create a team environment that would be safe and hospitable for Impostors.
He talked about their company culture and how meetings are places where the perceptions of individual contribution and value get set. He added that meetings are where those who have the loudest and most persistent voices are perceived to have the best ideas, even when he knows that others who are more quiet also make equal, if not more significant, contributions.
So what can we do—as leaders, as colleagues, and as co-participants in meetings—to ensure Impostor voices are heard and create an environment that encourages all to contribute and share their ideas?
We’ve developed a set of five meeting practices that we recommend to ensure that meetings are safe and inclusive.
- Start with an “Ice Breaker”. We begin our meetings by going around the room and asking each participant what she or he would most value as an outcome for the meeting. This simple and relevant question “breaks the ice” to get everyone to speak, setting the stage for future contribution.
- Actively solicit contributions from those who are reluctant to speak. At the start of every meeting we recommend that meeting hosts and participants alike take note of those in the room who they feel may be reluctant to speak up. In the discussion, we suggest inviting them to actively contribute. You might say “I’m curious what Jane has to say about this topic,” or “I want to be sure we hear from everyone. Jane, do you have anything to add?”
- Use the “Write Down and Contribute One Idea” technique. When we lead ideation discussions with teams, we often ask a question, then request that the attendees write down their thoughts. Rather than having the loudest voices give all their ideas first, we go one by one around the room, asking each person to contribute one of the ideas they wrote down. We continue around again until all ideas are on the table. In this way, everyone has the opportunity to make at lease one unique contribution to the discussion.
- Close the meeting with acknowledgement. We end almost every meeting by going around the room and asking each participant to answer two questions:
1) What is the most important thing you’re taking away from this meeting?
2) Who said something today that made a difference for you?
By acknowledging those who are reluctant to speak, we reward their contribution and send a clear signal that their voices matter, making it more likely they will speak up in future meetings.
- Privately acknowledge participation after the meeting. Seek out the quiet ones and let them know that you appreciated their contributions. This sends a signal that their ideas are heard and valued, and provides positive reinforcement for them to continue to speak up.
It had been decades since I felt the anxiety and paralysis that I felt early on in my career when participating in meetings—until this year. In January, I became an independent director on a corporate board. The company is in a completely new industry for me, with a business model and corporate structure with which I’m unfamiliar. I am the only woman on the board, and the two other independent directors have deep experience as retired chief executives in the industry. What’s more, the board dynamics are completely different from the other early-stage companies and non-profit boards on which I have served.
In my first board meeting, I found myself with the same feelings I had felt decades ago in my first company meetings. While I had thoughts and questions I longed to share, I was reluctant to speak up. I joked with friends that as the new kid on the block who lacked an understanding of the business and industry, my comments as an outsider neophyte might either be brilliant and bring a new perspective, or they could be irrelevant, naive and uninformed. The problem was that at any moment I had no idea whether my contributions would fall into the former or latter category—or more likely somewhere in-between.
Fortunately, the other board directors went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and valued. Often, when a new discussion topic emerged, one of the other independent board members would say “I’m curious what Kate has to say about this,” and invite me to speak up. What’s more, after each board meeting I received calls from both of the other independent directors, thanking me for my contributions and letting me know that my comments were valued.
I am so grateful for their support, and the psychological safety they created for me in the boardroom. I know how different my experience is from many other women who serve as the only woman on a corporate board.
Without a culture of psychological safety, many women are left behind in organizations where “in-groups” are the only ones that truly thrive. But what we’ve found is that for many companies trying to create a more diverse, inclusive, and supportive workplace culture, meetings are a great place to start.
The lesson in all of this is simple: make meetings safe for your teams, and your employees will shine. Help your employees shine, and your business will thrive.
“Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave…, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.” – Google People Operations
Creating an environment where it is safe to speak up is one of the hallmarks of Psychological Safety in organizations. And as we know, through research by Google, this matters business.