how can I get my staff to talk in meetings?

A reader writes:

I’m a new manager at a small nonprofit I’ve worked at for about 2 years. My role recently expanded to include managing a small team of two full time staff and an intern, who perform duties that were unfamiliar to me before. Overall, the transition has gone well and I have good individual relationships with each person. However, I am really struggling with our new every-other-week team meetings. I feel like I’m the only person talking, and staff facial expressions and body language make me feel like they hate being there. It’s stressful for me and in some ways I find it quite rude.

I think I’m following good meeting etiquette – I keep the meetings short, always have a printed agenda, ask for feedback about everything, and one of the staff takes notes. But when I ask for feedback, suggestions or other business, they just stare at me. These staff/interns are all fairly reserved and young (oldest is 23) and I worry that because I’m outspoken and their boss, they take everything I suggest as law, when I want discussion and feedback.

It’s worth noting that prior to the org restructure, this team was largely unsupervised and underdeveloped. They never had one-on-one supervisions, team meetings, learning goals or reporting requirements, all of which we now have — so a lot of things may feel new and unfamiliar. Even now, due to the nature of their roles they still work fairly independently on a daily basis. I feel like they don’t understand the general point of having team meetings and are not used to continuous improvement processes, etc.

I’m not sure how to get them comfortable and engaged. Icebreakers feel cheesy in meetings that are often just three people. What can I do?

Well, first, are you sure you need these meetings?

Regular team meetings are one of those things that managers often do because they think they’re supposed to, even if they’re not really accomplishing all that much. It’s not that team meetings can’t be useful or necessary — they definitely can be both — but there are plenty of times people carry on with them even though they’re not.

So first I’d take a rigorous look at what your goals for these meetings are, and whether a group meeting is the best way to accomplish them. Are you delivering information that can’t be delivered more efficiently through email or another medium? (Meetings that are one-way info delivery often aren’t a good use of time, unless you’re expecting a lot of questions.) Are you sharing updates? Seeking discussion and input on your team’s work? Brainstorming solutions to problems? Or are you just meeting because it feels like something you’re supposed to do?

If the purpose is primarily for you to share information with your staff members or for them to share updates on their work with each other, it might not matter that there’s not a whole lot of discussion going on beyond that. If that’s the case, though, you might get less weird body language and blank stares if you own that. If people know the meetings are intended to be a quick rundown of new info they just need to be aware of, and that they don’t have to struggle to come up with something else to add, everyone might feel better about attending and less like they’re being put on the spot.

But if the purpose really is to get input and generate discussion, then you’ve got to approach it differently. In that case, I’d do four things:

* First, name the problem: be explicit with people about what you’d like them to do differently and why, and ask what they think about that. For example, you could say, “We have these meetings so that we can discuss new ideas, problem-solve, and generally brainstorm how we can do our work better. You each have a perspective on your work that I don’t have, which is why I want your input. But these meetings generally end up with only me talking, and there’s not much point to meeting in that case. I’m interested in hearing from each of you how these meetings are and aren’t working for you, what you see as the obstacles to participating more, and whether there’s something you’d find more useful than what we’re doing now.”

If you get blank stares, say this: “I’d like to hear from everyone, but I’ll start” (which is only fair, if you’re asking people who don’t like talking in meetings to talk in meetings). Then offer up a bit about what you think is going on. From your letter, it sounds like it could go something like this: “I’m concerned that because you’re all at the early stages of your career, you might feel that you don’t have anything to contribute to these discussions. If that’s how anyone is feeling, I want you to know that I don’t think that at all. From my one-on-one discussions with each of you, I know that you each have good ideas and smart insights about our work. For example, Jane, we were able to use your great idea about X last month, and Jonah, you solved our ongoing problem with Y.” And then you pass the baton — as in, “I’d like to hear from each of you about your own thoughts on this. Jane, how about you next?”

You’re going to be putting people on the spot here, but that’s okay. It’s a normal expectation of most jobs that people will contribute in meetings. You’re allowed to call on people to participate. (And it might be particularly helpful to do so on a team that has established a norm about not speaking up on their own.)

* Second, at future meetings, try giving people advance notice of the topics you’re going to be discussing and asking them to come prepared with ideas to contribute. A lot of people do better in meetings if they have time to reflect and prepare beforehand. Plus, by saying “please come prepared with thoughts on X and Y,” you’ll be conveying your expectation that they’ll participate in the discussion — a more casual “does anyone have any thoughts on this?” doesn’t do that.

In fact, you might start this with the suggestion above: let people know ahead of time that you want them to come to your next meeting prepared to share thoughts on how to improve these meetings.

* Third, I’m assuming that you are having more back-and-forth with people in your one-on-one meetings. But if you’re not, you might need to back up and start there — using these same tactics for your one-on-one meetings before you start applying them to the group meetings. Because your staff are young and newish to the work world, you may need to get them comfortable with sharing thoughts with you before they start sharing them with the group. You shouldn’t spend a year on that — but a couple of months of doing this one-on-one first may lay a stronger groundwork for doing it with the group.

* Fourth — and crucially — make sure you’ve created an environment where people will feel comfortable contributing. Sometimes employees don’t speak up because they’ve seen their own or others’ ideas criticized and dismissed, or they’ve otherwise absorbed the message that they’re seen as cogs in a wheel rather than people whose perspective matters. If you might have inadvertently sent signals that are suppressing discussion now, or if a previous manager on the team did, it’s worth addressing that head-on (although it can’t just be lip service or people will pick up on that).

But again, before you do any of this, get really clear in your own mind about what you want to accomplish with these meetings, which will help you structure these conversations more effectively and better articulate for your staff where you’re coming from with all of this. Don’t fall into the “we meet because that’s what teams do” trap. If you do, the uncomfortable silences and blank stares are likely to continue.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 148 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous Educator*

    Fourth — and crucially — make sure you’ve created an environment where people will feel comfortable contributing. Sometimes employees don’t speak up because they’ve seen their own or others’ ideas criticized and dismissed, or they’ve otherwise absorbed the message that they’re seen as cogs in a wheel rather than people whose perspective matters.

    This may also go beyond the meetings themselves to the general culture of the workplace. When I’ve been in workplaces that have no-one-speaks-in-meetings issues, it’s mainly because the workers are very jaded and don’t have faith in the leadership team in general or feel that any of their concerns (inside or outside of meetings). Not saying that necessarily applies to the OP, but even the perception of not being listened to or cared about will make employees check out.

    1. Solidus Pilcrow*

      There is nothing like being/felt ignored to drop participation and morale.

      At a former job, I was picked to be part of a focus group/brainstorming session with upper management about employee engagement and retention. My peers and I were supposed to help management understand what the grunt workers were feeling and what would make a difference to us. We spent a good 50% of the meeting discussing time off in various forms: feeling like we couldn’t take PTO, wanting to bank overtime as PTO (we were all salaried exempt, so basically comp time), how much/little PTO we were allotted and how fast/slow it accrued, etc. The next week the HR rep in attendance sends out “minutes” of the meeting: absolutely no mention about any of the time off issues. It pretty much felt like the time off issues was not what they wanted to hear so what we had to say was just ignored. As far as I know, they never had another focus group like that again.

      Another workplace didn’t want to hear that people felt overworked and underpaid. When these very concrete issues were brought up, they kept saying ‘OK, you’re overworked and underpaid, but what else?’ over and over again. It seemed like all they wanted to hear was trivial suggestions like starting a weekly Ping Pong game would make everyone happy.

      1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

        Yeah, my experience has been that in most workplaces, it’s actually really easy to pin down what the exact problem is, it’s just that management isn’t really interested in solving (or, rarely, isn’t actually able to solve) that problem, so they’re hoping to focus on stuff they CAN change. Which, fine, but don’t expect to get any better than marginal results on marginal effort. If the problem is simply that your business is unsustainable unless people are working 60 hour weeks, then that will continue to be a problem in your business until you either make that not the case, or the business fails. Everything else is gonna be marginal.

    2. DDJ*

      Yup. I have a former coworker who would give countless suggestions on how to make one particular facet of our business better – as someone who has both been in and supervised that role, they were extremely thoughtful suggestions and ones that the business would have been wise to take into consideration.

      They left because they felt like, as much as they wanted to help and change things, all their suggestions were ignored. So why keep trying to make things better? Well, when they handed in their notice, our big boss said “There are big changes coming that are going to implement some of the things we’ve talked about so many times, and things are going to keep moving in that direction to make them better.” But it was too late, because former coworker had already accepted a position elsewhere and had no interest in staying.

      1. QuiteContrary*

        Good lord, are you talking about me? I was just in this situation. For the past 2.5 years, I had been making suggestions to improve my department’s workflow and make us more competitive. Neither the manager, nor the manager’s manager, wanted to hear anything or make any changes whatsoever. It was frustrating because we were very out of date in terms of workflow and technology, and we were losing money every year in sales. So I left, and when I turned in my resignation to the COO, she promised me that changes were coming and that many of my suggestions would prove useful. But I told her I wouldn’t wait any longer because I’d been here that same excuse (“changes are coming, we swear we’re going to be changing”) for more than a year.

        I’m much happier at my new place, where my department welcomes and embraces change, and works hard to stay very competitive. Very different from the thinking at my old gig.

    3. Stephanie (HR Manager)*

      I’ve been in a situation where I had a boss who snapped at everything I said. She would ask for an idea, and I would start to put forward an idea, and she grew visibly upset and snapped that I was wrong and listed all the reasons why. I think she wanted to foster an environment of healthy debate and idea sharing, but I honestly felt like a puppy getting bonked on the nose with a newspaper every time I spoke. (Even more frustrating, the feedback I got from her was that I wasn’t contributing enough in meetings.)

      So if you think you are doing what Alison is suggesting, take a look at whether you are using positive or negative reinforcement in response to the behavior you want to see.

    4. Candy*

      Yup, this exactly. When I first started at my company I piped up a lot in meetings or when asked directly by my manager for my opinions. But I learned pretty quickly that my opinions neither mattered nor were listened to so now I don’t bother.

      If my manager asks me directly, “Do you think we should do Y?” I’ll turn it back on her and be like, “Oh I don’t know, what do you think?” and she’ll say exactly what she always planned on doing in the first place.

      I think she read a management book one time that told her to solicit employee feedback but she’s such a micromanaging control freak she will never actually consider anything we suggest.

      So now when we have meetings no one offers any suggestions or feedback, ever. We all know there’s no point.

    5. So Very Anonymous*

      My department used to have an annual retreat. Over several years it got more focused on us listening to outside presenters with fewer and fewer opportunities for us to actually talk with each other, until one memorable retreat where there was concern expressed amongst us about a large, expensive, and highly visible project that failed (for most of the reasons we cited as concerns) — after that, no more retreats. Meetings are announcements. Even when there’s supposed to be a discussion (as before a vote), virtually no discussion. Offering input feels risky.

      There seems also to be a pretty deep culture where I am re people not feeling safe speaking in meetings (and I’ve seen some nasty things said in meetings, so I understand it). Since you’ve been at this organization for 2 years, it might be worth talking with someone with more institutional memory to see if there’s a longer pattern of this kind of thing? Even younger/newer employees can pick up on that vibe.

    6. Tealparadise*

      In terms of not having faith in leadership… they just restructured and:

      “who perform duties that were unfamiliar to me before”

      I’m thinking the team doesn’t necessarily need these meetings. Sometimes having a boss who doesn’t really understand the work but has a lot of opinions…makes it much easier to just be quiet and get the real work done once they leave. With the comment about body language and expression, they don’t want to be there… it’s not just shyness or youth or something. They may have lumped all the new routines together as “stuff we’re now required to do but which is useless.”

    1. Bolt*

      I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if these were people modelling for a stock photo or if this could’ve been one of those ‘lets take a picture during a meeting!” moments at work….

      1. Cleo*

        Good question! It has more of a candid look to me – I think mostly because the background is a little busy / distracting for a staged stock photo.

  2. Roscoe*

    Well, some people just hate meetings and don’t want to talk in them unless its something they feel strongly about. I’m very much like that. I basically keep my mouth shut, as to not prolong the meeting, on things that I don’t really care about. Or just things where my boss asks for feedback, but I know my feedback won’t change anything. I know you are doing these every other week. Do you think that is really necessary? I’ve definitely had jobs that were independent enough where once a month was plenty, and others where you needed to meet every week. But I’ve found that some managers (like my current one) really just like them and find much more value than I do. Also, are you doing 1 on 1 meetings at all? Maybe try doing fewer all team meetings but maybe a weekly 15-20 minute one on one check in.

    1. Koko*

      I’ve only recently started to find value in most meetings, and I’m 8 years into my career.

      One thing is that, with lower level employees, often the work is fairly uncomplicated and there’s just not much to discuss, especially with people who do very different work. It doesn’t make sense to wait for a weekly meeting to ask, “What font should I use for the teapot imprints?” or other very basic questions when you can just email, chat, or pop your head into someone’s office to get a quick answer DAYS sooner than if you waited for a meeting to bring it up.

      It wasn’t until I got much more advanced in my career that I started 1) having more complicated questions that required more back and forth discussion, and 2) being so busy and reporting to people so busy that asking questions as they come up is inefficient and disruptive to our productivity. Prior to those two developments I saw almost all meetings as a waste of my time.

  3. Hmmmmm*

    I think the fact that the oldest is 23 explains everything for this specific case. Allison’s advice was great in general, but with this age group, your meeting structure probably too closely resembles a college seminar class where they are supposed to just quietly sit there and take notes, read the hand out. I HATE ice breakers and team building exercises, but I think this is a rare example where breaking them of college class behavior habits by reminding them this is not a class, this is a meeting where they are expected to contribute might work.

    1. Yorick*

      College students do a ton of ice breakers and team building exercises. I don’t think that’s the answer here. They likely don’t talk because of the meeting itself, not because they’re uncomfortable with each other.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Yep, college is actually where I developed my eternal annoyance with any sentence that begins with “Let’s go around the room and…”

          1. Ramona Flowers*

            I love them.

            But I also like commuting to work in my open plan office so I’m like the AAM anti-christ

            1. Justme*

              I don’t hate open plan offices. But icebreakers make me very anxious. I have opted out of them a few times recently.

              1. only acting normal*

                All open plan offices are not created equal. I hate my current open plan office, but I’ve worked in others that were fine, it really depends on design.

                Re ice-breakers, our company used to use a training firm that often used “tell the room something interesting or unusual about yourself”, so I started wearing a particular top to training courses so my interesting thing was that I’d made it myself.

          2. Perse's Mom*

            I just think of them as pointless, most of the time. On the rare occasion that they’re relevant to the meeting, it’s because the meeting has a specific topic and the icebreaker is matched to that.

        1. Solidus Pilcrow*

          It’s especially fun when you’re upper level (senior/graduate) in a specific track and basically are introducing yourselves to the same 15 people over and over again ’cause you’re all taking the same classes.

    2. Emi.*

      I dunno about that. When I was in school you were supposed to sit and take notes in lectures, and talk in seminars. Unless you’re sitting in classroom-style rows (seminars sat around a table, much like how my office does meetings), I don’t think this is it.

      1. Gen*

        Yeah seminars are where you’re supposed to learn not to let the room go quiet or the lecturer willgo around and make everyone contribute hahah well they were at my university which is why I learned the terrible habit of contributing just to break the silence which honestly makes meetings worse.

        They probably lack the business experience to be able to make suggestions, or they don’t see suggestions being implimented

  4. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

    I think you pretty much nailed down what the issues were. By that I mean, they were unsupervised, worked independently, and didn’t have team or one-on-one meetings. This is all new to them and it may take some time before they get used to and comfortable with the idea.

    Alison gave some excellent advice and I would like to stress one part of it, encouraging them to give feedback on your thoughts and ideas in a one-on-one environment. Really stress this. Ask them for suggestions for your work. Say something like, “This is how I am planning on doing this. Do you have any ideas on how I can do it better?” or even, “I have no idea how to start on this. Do you have any suggestions? I think you may know more about this than I do.” Of course be sure and actually take their suggestions and follow up on them when appropriate so that it doesn’t look like lip-service. Also, be sure and compliment them when one of their suggestions works.

    Also in the meetings (and this is something we do in my current job) ask everyone to just give a brief status update on what they are working on including any roadblocks or bumps they have run into. This will encourage talking at the very least and maybe someone else may have idea of how to navigate the difficulty that person is having.

    I want to say “congratulations” and “well done” on the way you are handling things especially the meetings. Not every manager handles meetings so well. Also, great job on having such insight into your employees.

    Good Luck.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      I am also on a team with a lot of reserved people, who will almost never speak up if the boss asks the group a question, but they do great when we go around the room and everyone takes a turn. I think it helps because it’s predictable and you know how long you have to prepare.

    2. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

      I want to add that if you do have people give status updates, be prepared for “No problems. / All is good” type answers at first. At least it is a start. Hopefully after a while, they will break down and start sharing.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Yeah, one thing I’ve noticed is that people will often start their status update with “Nothing to report,” and then report for 20 minutes on this one little thing they thought of a moment later…

        1. Anonymous 40*

          I have a coworker like that. He talks for so long that nobody after him has a chance to give their update, like he can’t see what time it is or how many people are left to go. Drives me insane. If I ran the world, he’d permanently be the last one to speak.

      2. OhNo*

        And if/when you do get those kind of answers, it might help to ask a specific question. Ex:

        Manager, “Jane, updates?”

        Jane: “All good, nothing to report.”

        Manager: “Great! Are you still working on the X report, or did you finish that one already?”

        And then your employee has a specific topic to discuss, and you can often tease out more details if you think there’s something that the rest of the team should know, or if they mention an issue that others can help solve.

        1. Samata*

          This is a great suggestion. I am really interested in this discussion because while not a manger I am leading more and more meetings and am running into some of the same problems as OP.

    3. Koko*

      Another factor to consider is if the work the people do is similar enough that they really benefit from taking time out of their day to share it with each other in person.

      My small immediate team, about 6-7 people who handle online marketing, has a weekly meeting that is incredibly useful. We review performance from the past week, then we review our plans for the next 2-3 weeks of email messaging, brainstorm new projects to get on the calendar, and re-assess whether we still need or want to do the projects previously on the calendar. Our boss asks questions about how things went that those of us “in the weeds” can fill each other in on, lets us know about any priorities that upper management is requesting us to pursue, and provides feedback on priorities that each of us has for our own roles. A representative from our customer service department sits in and helps give us insight into how our messaging is being received by subscribers based on feedback his department is getting. It’s an incredibly useful meeting because the work we all do is highly relevant to each other’s work.

      On the other hand, the larger team I’m part of, which includes my team + the offline marketers + the database specialists + customer service, has a monthly round-robin that I hate attending. The work of those other teams is mildly interesting and I would certainly read a monthly email report from each team if they produced one, but I don’t feel that I benefit at all from sitting in the same room listening to status updates from those teams. Our work is so different that their projects only very indirectly affect my own work, and I have nothing to contribute because they know their area so much better than I do. It takes an entire hour to go around the room and have all two dozen people give their 2-minute update on what they’re working on and it’s pretty much never been useful to me. Sure, we all reporting to the same boss, and I imagine it’s convenient for him to knock out hearing from everybody in a single meeting, but it’s truly a waste of my time to listen to the details of some data hygiene project the db admins are working on, as I imagine it’s a waste of theirs to hear me rattle off a list of upcoming marketing campaigns.

      1. Antilles*

        The latter type of meeting is really common on big projects. In my experience, the best way to handle it is to do it via conference call with Skype if possible. The people who really need to pay attention to everything (usually just the project manager and his staff) can do so; everybody else can listen for the first 10 minutes of “general project updates”, then mute their microphone and work on other stuff during the part of the meeting where everybody’s dropping their 2-minute update which is basically irrelevant to 98% of the attendees.

      2. The Other Dawn*

        Yes, this is how I feel, too.

        The weekly department meeting, which is seven of us, is really useful. Although we all work together and talk throughout the week, it’s a chance to loop in Big Boss (my boss) on everything going on in the department and to get his thoughts on certain things. (He runs three departments, so isn’t involved in our day-to-day stuff, but, due to his “officer” designation, needs to know what’s going on.)

        Big Boss’s meeting, which is every other week, is with his department/team managers. There are five of us that attend, plus Big Boss. I don’t find these personally useful, since my department really doesn’t have anything to do with the other departments/teams. Those departments/teams are all somewhat intertwined and mine is somewhat off in left field. Basically I just sit there any listen to them talk about vendor issues, server problems, etc. The only part of the one-hour meeting that really applies to me is when Big Boss talks about things that came out of upper management meetings relating to the company’s financials, initiatives, etc.

      3. Samiratou*

        This type of thing is hard. I can be useful to hear from people on other teams regularly to at lest stay generally aware of what people are doing. My company sucks at this, so we end up with a lot of siloing and useful resources people aren’t using because they don’t know about them, or repetitive work or just a bunch of people with no idea the value of work others are doing because they have no visibility to it.

        So, it may seem like a waste, and maybe the boss is just doing it to save his time, but on the flip side there may be some value in being aware of what other people are doing and even who does what as roles change and stuff like that.

  5. Augusta Sugarbean*

    In my workplace apathy is a huge, huge problem. Or more accurately, the garbage management that has created apathy is a huge, huge problem. People have tried to make changes, offer suggestions, give feedback over the years but nothing really ever changes. The managers we’ve had are not really invested in the program or too spineless to really address problems so staff has mostly given up on trying to change things and just keep their heads down. This probably isn’t the issue in this workplace since staff is young but maybe they’ve heard from other more senior employees that nothing ever changes and so don’t want to try.

    1. Cafe au Lait*

      Apathy goes both ways. I’m on a committee at work that’s dedicated to staff professional development. We work really hard to solicit feedback from the staff to provide the professional development staff want, not what the committee feels is important. The sheer number of people who feel that somehow we *should know* what types of PD is most valuable, and arrange it at a time that’s most convenient for them, oh, and make sure they have their manager’s approval to attend is fairly high up there.

      I had one person tell me that she doesn’t find the work my committee does to be valuable. Another I had to tell to lay off; it was her choice not to attend any of the PD workshops, but she couldn’t complain when she didn’t attend and didn’t offer suggestions.

      1. DDJ*

        I guess what’s tough is that if my business were asking me for the kinds of programs I’d like to attend, I’d have to consider whether they would be programs that the business would find useful. Because if the ultimate goal of PD is to make sure that people are being developed to stay with the company (or as a part of succession planning) then I would expect the company I work for to know which kinds of courses or programs put individuals in the running to be considered either for promotions or to be put on a management track.

        I’d find it daunting to suggest those kinds of programs. Although I suppose it really depends on how your business runs. I feel like I’m probably super biased because for a lot of our leadership workshops specifically, employees are nominated by their supervisors/managers and the program is all run through management and HR.

        If there’s comprehensive career/succession planning that’s done for/with employees where you work, then it would make sense to have the expectation that employees would be researching the kinds of PD programs that would be useful in their ultimate career path. But if not, a lot of people just might not know how they have the option of growing and moving around within the company.

        1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

          Yeah, I think it’s much easier to pick from a buffet of choices that other people have already looked into/are willing to offer than to come up with stuff yourself. I also think that a lot of training programs are bunk, so I wouldn’t trust my Googling to come up with good results, and I wouldn’t really know what to propose.

        2. Cafe au Lait*

          One of the things we ask is “What professional development would make your job easier right now?” Here’s an example: A few people expressed interested in how to use data to streamline their job duties. So we hosted a meeting on the different types of data being generated, how it was used and what tools were available to make it easier. A large number of attendees hadn’t realized they use data daily, and were astounded to realize there were tools to make their jobs easier.

          I do understand that you want to make sure the PD is beneficial to the institution, but honestly, I don’t care what the workplace thinks. I care about what you want to learn to make your job easier.

  6. Ms. Meow*

    Another thing LW might consider is the time the meetings are held. Our old manager used to have our monthly group meetings at 1:30pm because it was a way to guarantee that everyone would be on site. When our new manager came in, she asked for suggestions about meetings and a big one was “schedule them so it’s not interrupting my work in the middle of the day.” Our meetings are now at 9am and people are much less grumpy about it.

    Maybe your reports feel like these meetings are throwing off their entire schedule. Or maybe they aren’t morning people. Or maybe they’re hungry because they haven’t eaten breakfast/lunch yet.

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      Or maybe the room is too warm. Or you’re trying to make them have one of those abominable standing meetings.

      1. DDJ*

        This is one thing my boss actually helped me with when I started managing people. She said that having regular meetings while everyone is still getting comfortable can be really beneficial, because it gives those regular check-ins that can otherwise be missed. But going forward, she said that unless the team is finding the meetings useful, there’s no need to have standing meetings “just because.”

        1. Ramona Flowers*

          I totally hear you on all this but I actually meant meetings where everyone stands instead of sitting. Which I loathe.

          1. Geoffrey B*

            Meetings that take “stand-up” literally are a great* way to involuntarily out people with hidden disabilities and make them feel like they have to justify themselves to the entire group. My sister had to explain why serious injuries from childbirth meant she wasn’t going to stand, while she was still dealing with PTSD from the whole business :-(

            1. Jean Lamb*

              I once had a breast biopsy, and was expected to stand in a meeting where there wasn’t enough chairs once it was over (fortunately I was still numb in that area). The boss knew it, too, and apparently had totally forgotten. I do not work for her now.

  7. CatCat*

    Great article. #4 especially, so important: make sure you’ve created an environment where people will feel comfortable contributing.

    I was on a team where a co-worker and I had gone to a presentation on our own dime about important suggestions and tools for a type of work product very similar to what our team had to regularly produce. My co-worker and I were discussing what we learned in the hallway when our senior manager intruded on the conversation, said she didn’t think it was related to what we do (note, she did not attend the presentation, ask us about the presentation, or see the materials we brought back) and she also didn’t care for the speaker (who was actually a person in the field I admired a great deal). Anyway, it totally shut down our conversation and interest in sharing. The junior manager overheard this exchange and was livid with the senior manager, had a conversation with her about it, and the senior manager then sheepishly and perfunctorily asked us to talk about the presentation at the next meeting. The wind was fairly out of our sails though and we made only brief remarks about it. There were other issues with the senior manager as well.

    At any rate, I never bothered to seek out other outside opportunities to learn things to share with the team after that though.

    1. CatCat*

      And when I say she told us she didn’t care for the speaker, she said some pretty rude things about him. I wish I’d had AAM’s “I hope you’re not saying that because you think I agree with you” phrase in my arsenal at that time. I was fairly shocked.

  8. Jaguar*

    Ask individual people questions during the meetings. Once they’re used to talking during meetings, they’ll be more willing to volunteer ideas or information if they have it. A format of one person talking leads to more one person talking.

    1. Murphy*

      I was going to say something similar. Make them talk somehow. I don’t know if these meetings are the kind where people would give status updates or something like that, but they’re already talking, they’re more likely to keep talking.

    2. azvlr*

      To add to this: Ask individual people questions that require more than a yes or no answer. To get people comfortable answering, ask questions that you know they can answer confidently.
      Also, look up “active engagement strategies” that teachers use. Not all of these strategies are suitable for adults, but the idea is that instead of asking, “Did you all get that?”, and then people just nod – ask for specific responses from everyone. I wish my boss did this in our virtual meetings, since body language is totally absent.

  9. Helpful*

    Prepping people beforehand about what is expected of them is a great suggestion, especially for newer workers. It will give them a chance to come up with a good idea/contribution ahead of time, which will hopefully give them confidence to do it more on-the-fly in the future.

  10. Nanc*

    Send the agenda out the day before, and by the day before I mean the morning before. I had a department head who would send the weekly meeting agenda out after 6 pm the evening before and it drove me nuts! The meeting is at 8 am the next morning and you want me to discuss some complicated thing that takes a couple of hours to get together. I couldn’t change her so my default became “I’ll gather that info and email it to everyone later today” (which was actually a better way to send the info).

  11. Helpful*

    You might also consider shaking up the format and doing quick stand-up meetings.

    or ask for quick updates from each person on their part of a project (if relevant to the team).

    1. Chicken Superhero*

      Heads up that some of us look like we can stand, but can’t, and don’t want to have to share medical details. But I could either stand for a whole 10 minutes straight, OR get my work done that day. But if I’m told to do it, I’d just stand and then be too exhausted for work. Because it’s my private medical info.

      1. SusanIvanova*

        I thought “stand up meeting” was just a buzzword phrase attached to an informal meeting that happened in an office, where there are plenty of things to sit on even if it’s just a desk. Which most of the people have done because if everyone stands in an office it gets crowded. And I’d do that even if someone decided “stand up meeting” really means everyone stands all the time.

        1. Koko*

          As I understand it the concept of a standing meeting is that everybody stands the entire time, and because everybody is wanting to sit down they talk faster and the meeting finishes sooner. If you let people sit then there’s no discomfort to motivate them to talk faster.

        2. Samiratou*

          Stand-ups are common in Agile development, and yes, our stand-ups have chairs, or happen online, but are daily check-ins where people share what they’ve done, what they’re working on, any issues they’re having completing work, etc.

          1. nonegiven*

            Yes, that’s what my son has talked about, stand up meetings, Agile, Slack. He is remote and works from his house.

          2. E.Maree*

            Yeah, my team does Agile development with ‘stand-up meetings’ and we definitely don’t actually stand up – we’re a remote team spread across the UK, so we’re all sitting in our desk chairs (often with webcams active for better body language reading).

            During the rare in-person meeting we’ll sometimes have an ‘in person’ stand up, and these have been: standing at a high table with seats available, sitting at a couch in the canteen, or gathered around a table all sitting.

            The core concepts of Agile are about flexibility and teamwork, so if one team member finds standing uncomfortable the whole team should respect that and arrange seated meetings. “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” is the very first rule of Agile, for Pete’s sake – anyone forcing literal stand-ups is being incredibly tone-deaf.

            I’ve been lucky so far and haven’t had to argue this point with any stubborn bosses, but if anyone puts my colleagues in an uncomfortable situation I’m very happy to wrap it up in management-speak and throw the Agile Manifesto rulebook at them.

        3. JulieBulie*

          Yeah, we sit at our stand-ups. I get that the original intention was for people to stand up, so they’d be motivated to be brief so they can leave ASAP. But in reality, that’s the wrong atmosphere if you think people should be listening to one another.

        4. nonegiven*

          The stand up meetings my son has mentioned take place over the phone or video conference, so everyone is probably sitting at a desk.

      2. TootsNYC*

        “But if I’m told to do it, I’d just stand and then be too exhausted for work. Because it’s my private medical info.”

        You wouldn’t go in private to you boss and can, “can i drag over a chair for those meetings? Standing is hard for me.”

        You don’t have to provide all the details to make that kind of request!

        1. Perse's Mom*

          That’s probably a ‘know your office’ situation. If your boss isn’t particularly supportive in general, or your office is gossipy or has Mean Girls, it may backfire.

      1. Kelly L.*

        I think the idea is that standing up is supposed to make people be more brief, but I’m not sure they reckoned with some of the people I’ve worked with :D

        1. SusanIvanova*

          Ha, the ones who can go on the longest get encouraged by standing up in front of people, like they’re doing a formal speech!

      2. E.Maree*

        I like ’em because:

        There’s a hard time limit of fifteen minutes. (For 5 people, might need increased slightly for larger teams).

        There’s a set, familiar format:

        * What did you do yesterday?
        * What are you doing today?
        * Any problems?
        [When done, pass on to the next person who hasn’t gone. And when that’s all done…]
        * Any other Business?
        [We use the Skype conference call tool instant messenger for this, noting questions and things we want to discuss in the chat as we go. eg ‘AoB: Timesheets’ ]

        …And the call is done.

        Takes a few weeks to get into the rhythm, but once you’re used to it it’s great. Keeps everyone focused, knowing they need to remember what they did the previous day and plan what’s ahead. It also means anyone without a clear job to do is quickly discovered and can be helped out.

  12. Yorick*

    I think the success of these meetings will depend on the type of work the team does. If their work is creative somehow, then having meetings where they brainstorm and discuss ideas can be useful, but that won’t happen if the work they do is fairly routine.

    Another thing to think about is how collaborative the team’s work is anyway. My coworkers and I don’t work on the same things, so during our meetings no one knows what anybody is talking about. I just sit quietly while someone else talks about a bunch of acronyms and people in other units who I don’t know.

  13. Safely Retired*

    At the next meeting propose a really bone-head idea, something that obviously won’t work. If they call you on it, smile and say “Thanks, you are right. I was just trying to see if anyone was paying attention.” If they still don’t respond, smile and say “You mean nobody here noticed what a totally stupid idea that is? I was sure you guys were smarter than that. Silence is not golden.”

    1. Yorick*

      LW shouldn’t waste everyone’s time like that. It would really bother me if my boss did something like that, especially in a meeting that already sounds like it might be a waste of time.

    2. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

      I like the concept in general, especially the first part. However, I know that I would take the second part (if not one spoke up) as condescending and I would totally shut-down after that. Was this a test/example of what you were trying to say?

      1. OhNo*

        It might work if it wasn’t framed as an actual work-related idea, but rather as a complete joke to poke fun at an issue you’re having. And even then, you’d have to make it clear that you were actually seeking opinions, rather than just waiting for someone to break the silence unprompted. Something like, “Oh, and I thought we might have live velociraptors brought in to help with our mouse problem! Unless anyone has a better plan?”

        Obviously, that would be highly dependent on the people. I know places where that would jump start the discussion exactly as intended, and others where it would fly like a lead balloon, so mileage may vary.

    3. Mouse*

      This sounds really condescending! I’m in the age range of the employees here, and if I heard a “stupid” idea suggested by my boss, I would not jump right to “this is stupid, I should call her on it”. I’d be thinking “wait, am I missing something here? What’s a good question I can ask to figure out why this makes sense without making myself sound clueless? I’ll keep listening and see if she elaborates first.”

      1. SarahTheEntwife*

        Yeah, something that obviously stupid, from a boss who hasn’t normally suggested absurd things, would make me think that either I’ve drastically misunderstood something or (as is in fact the case) that my boss has suddenly started playing mind games and I need a new job.

    4. Anonymous 40*

      Eh. The intent isn’t bad, but I’d tone it down a bit. Give an idea that’s just a little bit off. Something that’s plausible but flawed. Ask for feedback and praise generously anyone who gives it. If no one does, send out an email later saying you’ve made some changes to the new policy announced in the meeting, etc.

      Don’t ever announce that it was a test or an attempt to get people talking. That accomplishes nothing and will make everyone feel like you’re playing games with them. That’s likely to backfire in a big way.

      1. Observer*

        Let’s be clear – this IS game playing. That’s a really good way to lose the respect and trust of your team.

    5. Observer*


      If this isn’t a joke, you’ve hit on a perfect way to insure that no one will ever speak up in meetings to say anything useful. The OP’s staff ALREADY seem to see the meetings as a waste of time. Doing this will prove that there really is not any good work related reason for these meetings.

    6. Antilles*

      That won’t work. Why?
      Because anybody who’s sufficiently extroverted/self-confident/whatever to be comfortable straight up confronting their manager in public about “your idea is bone-headed and dumb” is almost certainly *not* the person who is quietly and awkwardly sitting in silence.
      Whereas the people who are the real problem here (the quiet/shy/etc) would just sit there quietly thinking your idea is dumb, but won’t say it. Then when you do your great reveal about how it was a test, they’ll be even more reluctant to talk in the future because they’ll (a) be irritated, (b) think these meetings are clearly a joke since not even you can take them seriously, and (c) always wonder whether you’re testing them.

    7. Lora*

      First thought: My boss is a hecking idiot. Oh god, I need to brush up my resume.
      Second thought: My boss is a hecking idiot who plays stupid games. What a jerk. I REALLY need to brush up my resume.

      I have had PLENTY of bosses who proposed boneheaded ideas in all seriousness, because they were dimwits. Suggesting that perhaps they might wish to reconsider, however gently, was not well-received and viewed as insubordination. See: idiots.

      1. Specialk9*

        Not to mention, the kind of boss who would deliberately propose a bad idea as a gotcha is highly likely to *also* be the kind of boss who did not take well to having a serious idea called out as stupid.

    8. Falling Diphthong*

      This strategy rests on the idea that this is the very first bone-headed idea anyone has ever proposed in these meetings, and so it should stand out like a black swan.

    9. Maya Elena*

      I don’t know about that specific technique, but I totally sympathize with the suggestion to shock a bunch of bored 20-year-olds into paying attention.

      1. Decima Dewey*

        Some brainstorming sessions have the rule that participants aren’t allowed to say any suggestion is boneheaded, idiotic, etc.

      2. Decima Dewey*

        But don’t some brainstorming sessions have a rule that participants aren’t allowed to say a given idea is boneheaded, idiotic, etc?

    10. Geoffrey B*

      Please don’t do this. Calling a boss on a bad idea is stressful to just about anybody. I’ve been fired for doing it. I will still do it, once my boss has earned my trust, but stunts like this are a fast way to destroy trust.

    11. Lars the Real Girl*

      Hard no. This is something a professor or teacher does in class, not something you do with adult professionals as their manager (even if they are new to the workforce.) Pull them UP into the work world, don’t go backwards into “you’re a student and I’m a teacher” territory.

  14. AndersonDarling*

    If there is specific feedback the OP is looking for, then I would ask that exact question. It doesn’t do any good to ask vague questions like “What do you think?” or “Does anyone have anything to add?” If I announced that a new project was coming up and I know Fergus worked on a similar project then I would ask, “Fergus, this sounds a lot like the Acme project from last year. Were there any challenges or delays on that project? Can you suggest any improvements this time around?”
    Thoughtful questions will get thoughtful answers.

  15. Alienor*

    I’m a lot older than 23, and I still really dislike the part of corporate culture that says you’re supposed to talk in meetings just for talking’s sake. I work with several people who do this, often by restating things other people have already said, and it makes me want to stuff them under the table to shut them up. I would much rather have a meeting where we’re given whatever information we need, anyone who has a relevant comment to make is given an opportunity to make it, and those of us who don’t have anything to add can just listen without being penalized for it. If I ran the world…

    I do agree with the point about making sure that people feel their suggestions have a chance of actually being implemented. I know in my particular office, we can make recommendations all day long, and senior management will thank us for the input, but then they’ll just turn around and do whatever they were already planning to do. I’m exhausted from going to the mat over things that I *know* don’t make any sense, and then seeing them happen anyway. It makes it really hard to care when the next thing crops up.

    1. only acting normal*

      Hell yes.
      I ran a perfect meeting once (emphasis on the once – the stars must have been aligned!). I invited all the right people, told them what I needed from them in advance, got everyone to exchange info at the meeting with only a few loose ends to tie up after. It took a lot of effort on my part in organising and planning, but it meant my project went really smoothly. My boss also attended… and criticised me for not talking more during the meeting. I was gobsmacked – I had of course talked, but I was mainly facilitating, as the person who knew least about the subject I’d gathered all the experts together for THEM to talk (and all my careful prep-work meant I didn’t need to brief them all from scratch, and they stayed on topic).
      He ran a meeting for a very similar project a while later, 3x the length of meeting, 4x the number of people, most of whom talked a lot and contributed nothing (including him). Because there was next to no prep, no-one came prepared, we got none of the necessary info at the meeting – it all had to be gathered at twice the effort later (mostly my effort). He thought it went great and I realised he was an idiot.

  16. LadyKelvin*

    My team sounds very similar to yours, LW. We all work fairly independently and don’t have a ton of overlap which would make weekly meetings worthwhile. Our solution is to have monthly science meetings, where someone gives an informal presentation on what they are currently working on for us to discuss and help troubleshoot if they are having challenges, or a skills learning session like our last meeting was setting us up to use github as a team for more transparency and easier code sharing. This gives us a chance to see each other and discuss our work and gives our supervisor a chance to update us on stuff we need to know but don’t need to have a meeting about. Then every quarter we have a business meeting which updates everyone on new policy changes, staff changes, travel schedules, etc. Its enough that I know what everyone else is working on but not so much that I feel like I’m wasting my time.

  17. Anonymous Educator*

    One other thing—it may just be their personalities, to a certain extent. Yes, there are things you can do to draw people out, but, as a former classroom teacher, I can assure there were sections that could not stop talking, and there were sections that were just silent most of the time. Same material, same teacher (me). I could get the people in the latter types of sections to participate, but it was always a lot of work and never felt natural. Sometimes you just get a weird mix. Of course, you also have more control over which employees you have (teachers usually don’t get to pick which students they teach), but that may not be something you’re screening for in hiring (“So, how do you feel about participating in meetings?”).

  18. Ramona Flowers*

    It doesn’t sound clear what these are for. Are they for organisational updates? You surely don’t need those so often. Are they project meetings? If so, try to make them more playful and relaxed (coloured post-its and sharpies are your friend here).

  19. JD*

    One though is if you are having too many meetings. I once worked for a non-profit that had me in meetings every minute of the day two days a week plus some more tossed in. Those two days were just the regular meetings. I finally starting declining on the 7th meeting to chose a promotional pen color to the exact shade. I nearly used the pen to gouge my eyeballs out.

    I am not saying you are but if your staff are inundated with meetings, regardless of how important, they will eventually act this way. Also sometimes I would not talk just to end the meeting that had now gone however long past the time, likely eating into my lunch while my stomach churned. At that point if someone brought another question up the whole room would just sign in frustration.

    That could be the case if there are a lot of meetings.

  20. Cassandra*

    Try some input-gathering techniques that aren’t talking to the whole room?

    In the classroom, think-pair-share is so common as to be next door to a hoary cliché. (Any search engine will find you lots of info on this technique.) It can work for gathering input as well, though “pair” may need to be “small-group.” The tl;dr version is “pose a question, let people think a minute, then have them reveal their thoughts in pairs/small groups, which then report out.”

    Where I work, when something potentially contentious has to be talked through en masse, we do an index-card exercise first. Side 1: “What are the top three things you hope to see with respect to X?” Side 2: “What are your top three worries with respect to X?” Cards are then gathered up, summarized, and used to fuel discussion and reach acceptable compromises. (We don’t always get to full consensus, though it’s common, but minimally those who lose votes know they’ve been heard.)

    Many more techniques for eliciting input are out there; I’m sure AAM’s commentariat can offer some.

      1. Lars the Real Girl*

        Same as my comment above – these things are used in the classroom because they’re for teaching students. A work environment is not the place to create a teacher/student dynamic and will probably achieve the opposite effect – people will feel like there is more of a power distance and contribute less unless they’re specifically asked to do these things.

  21. A Teacher*

    Thank you…could it be said in an email?! Teachers work pretty independently because we all teach different things. I’m a department of one so there really isn’t collaboration with my peers on testing or anything because no one else teaches what I teach (even my 14K student district). Often, we will have meetings where they could have just sent an email or if anyone raises a concern they are told they are a “boo bird” and negative or you get “bring a problem, bring a solution” so its just easier to not bring a problem and keep one’s mouth shut.

  22. Observer*

    My first thoughts were a mix. On the one hand, make sure that you make it crystal clear that you really want input. You’ve gotten some good suggestions on that, the most important being to ask specific questions rather than the generic “What do you think?” Also, give people space to talk. And when you do have to disagree, do so respectfully (“With all due respect, that’s a dumb idea” isn’t respectful even though you use the word respect.)

    On the other hand, what IS the point of these meetings. You write as though the purpose and need for these meetings should be self evident, and their failure to understand it is down only to a lack of experience. But, it’s not self evident from where I sit. So, really think about that question and, as Alison suggested, get really clear in your own mind what the purpose is. And then communicate this to your staff.

    1. Specialk9*

      “With all due respect” is almost always followed by the deepest disrespect, in my experience. It’s like “Not to speak ill of the dead”.

  23. JD*

    I can also add that while you shouldn’t need to bribe employees, doing these first thing with some bagels is a sure fire way to give a more relaxed setting. I also find doing them on Mondays or Fridays and having some bagel or donuts in there a bit before it begins opens it up to people lingering in for a while before it begins and engaging in conversations. The reasons I like Mondays or Fridays is because if it is Monday a.m. people will chat about their weekends while munching or for Fridays their weekend plans. If staff are already in conversation when you get to the more serious items it can really open the flow for the meeting. You would be surprised how often you’d hear “oh this weekend we went to the museum…oh it made me think about project X while we were there and I think we should add more artwork to the brochure for more visual interest”.

    1. Eloise*

      I was thinking the same thing — “Feed them!”
      The best team I ever managed had monthly check-in meetings (we didn’t need them more often), and we scheduled them over lunch. It allowed us to meet without taking an extra chunk out the day. People didn’t seem to mind it just once a month, and often I would bring dessert. (Sometimes it even turned into a potluck!) It fostered a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, and those who didn’t work in our main office seemed to like the opportunity to be face-to-face with the rest of the team occasionally.

  24. nnn*

    When I was that age, it didn’t occur to me that other people might not have had the same ideas I had. For example, if my idea was “The teapots and coffee pots should be different colours so people can tell them apart at a glance” and no one else brought up that idea, I would assume that they’d all already thought of it and rejected it for reasons that I wasn’t smart enough to realize.

    What I needed to realize when to speak up was a critical mass of external validation. In situations where I did raise ideas (often because I was put on the spot or asked specifically “What do you think about this?”) my boss (and often the others in the room) would respond positively and enthusiastically, often specifically saying “I’m so glad you brought that up because no one else thought of it!”

    So yeah, like Alison said in her advice, ask individuals for their personal thoughts, and make sure to validate good ideas and specifically point out that you’re glad they brought it up.

  25. H.C.*

    So much yes to the ‘are these meetings necessary?’ One of my OldJobs had daily team meets as part of the larger org’s transitioning to lean management. I’d say 2/3 of the time, the team had nothing beyond “working on the same x, y & z as yesterday” -_-

        1. H.C.*

          Ha the “lean” idea of the daily meets were to facilitate discussing and addressing obstacles before they snowball into big delays and shutdowns – but most of the problems we encountered in OldJob we handle just fine on a 1-on-1 basis w coworkers & vendors.

  26. animaniactoo*

    Another thing to put forward that would be good – ask them what they think would be most useful for THEM to get out of a team meeting. There may be a need that’s going unmet, but they don’t feel like this meeting is the place to speak up about it, or don’t feel comfortable suggesting those kinds of ideas at all.

    But if you can get them to talk about what they could use out of a team meeting, you can incorporate that if possible and probably get more engagement that way as well. If it’s not possible to incorporate it for that, see if there’s another way to address it and get them on board with the idea that “this is a responsive boss. speaking here is not a waste of air/cred/etc.”

  27. Anonymous 40*

    You should also reinforce the idea that you genuinely want their input between meetings, too. Go to them individually to ask for their opinions and feedback outside of meetings and one-on-ones. Occasionally just stop by one of their desks and say, “Hey, Fergus, what do you think about this teapot quality issue? I know you’ve worked with that group before…” etc. If they learn individually that you really do value what they have to say on a day-to-day basis, they’re much more likely to speak up in a more formal setting.

    Also, when they come to you with questions, problems, or requests for directions, make a point to always ask what they think, what they’d prefer, etc. Many times you’ll need to make a decision that isn’t what they want, but to the extent possible, make all of your interactions collaborative.

    1. Anonymous 40*

      To be clear, in the first paragraph it’s important that you go to them. Both one on ones and team meetings are required activities that everyone has to do. Going directly to a specific person instead is the difference between accepting their input and seeking their input.

      1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        Agreed– it’s a good way to build trust and get people to feel like the can open up in bigger groups. It also gives you points you can bring up in the team meeting, like “Fergus, I know you and I talked about X and you made a great suggestion– can you share it” or “do you think this meets the concerns you had.”
        That kind of prompt can both help give Fergus a way to start talking in the team meeting, and show others that you’re listening to everyone.
        One problem I’ve noticed with some team meetings where everyone had individual projects, is that people may think they know more than they do about what others are doing. That is, they may think “why do we need to meet, I know what Jane does, she knows what I do, can we go now?” Once you start getting people actually talking about the projects, sharing what they’ve done or where they had a sticky point and worked through it, people may start to realize that there’s more they can learn. And more of their own work they want to talk about.

  28. LA*

    I know that for me, there are very few “everyone working here/entire team” meetings that have ever been worth their time; most would be so much easier to deal with as an email. Admittedly, part of that is because senior managers where I work are great at listening but crap at implementing anything.

    But smaller, more focused meetings can be absolutely vital. Do you really need everyone on the team in each of these meetings? Would they possibly be better served meeting in smaller, more task-focused groups most of the time, rather than biweekly whole team meetings? Some people might overlap in more than one area, but if you’ve got llama groomers and llama trainers stuck in meetings about llama nutrition, they’re going to be annoyed because they could be spending that time grooming or training llamas. Better to have llama feeders together for a meeting about better llama nutrition, and the llama groomers in a meeting about llama styling techniques, and the llama trainers evaluating their training results. You don’t have to close the llama nutrition meeting to just llama feeders, because maybe some of the llama groomers or trainers will be interested, but don’t require them to be there, either.

  29. Lora*

    I would start by asking their input on something relatively simple and low-stakes – something that whatever they suggest, you will totally implement it or try like heck to implement, even if it’s a silly idea or whatever. You want to demonstrate that you take their input seriously and will act on it. Do they want more markers for the whiteboard? Do they want a checklist for setting up the wonky printer that isn’t straightforward to map? Get them those things. Then gradually increase the stakes and invite more debate, more troubleshooting, more talking, where you just act as a moderator.

  30. RG*

    One thing to note OP: a lot of times, when leading a discussion of some sort, we expect our audience to visibly indicate their agreement – so shaking their heads, for example. But that doesn’t really happen all that often – in my experience, people don’t visibly react at all. It might be that your employees all agree with you, but they won’t make many gestures to indicate that – but if you ask them individually what they think afterwards, they’d tell you they thought it was a great idea. I understand wanting them to speak more, but be careful not to mistake silence for apathy.

  31. Stacie*

    I’m a fan of the book Leading with Questions by Michael Marquardt. It really dives into creating a culture where people feel comfortable contributing. I train managers and this is a great knowledge resource I use.

  32. Maya Elena*

    Having been a teaching assistant to undergrads, I’ve seen my share of blank stares and the lack of any kind of thinking effort whatsoever. It is really frustrating and disheartening, and quite rude.

    Luckily, you have authority over them, so if you ultimately find (through body language at meetings, behavior in one-on-ones, or responses to Alison’s suggestions) that the behavior stems from laziness and a feeling of couldn’t-be-bothered, you can at least exercise that authority.

    1. Roscoe*

      I’d argue against that. Some people just don’t have much to say in meetings. Forcing it is not a way to have a productive team.

      1. Lars the Real Girl*

        Agreed. And a group of undergrads vs a group of employees is different. If everyone in the meeting is looking disengaged I would be looking at the behavior of the person at the front of the room, not assuming that all of the employees are rude. They’re different scenarios.

  33. Hiring Mgr*

    I agree with Alison’s main point that the meetings may not be necessary, at least at the current frequency. No sense trying to force it just because it’s what managers are “supposed to do”…I’ve been there, learned that…

  34. Student*

    Something you may not be considering in this dynamic:

    These people probably view each other as primarily competition – not team mates.

    They don’t actually need to work together to do their job. They are doing their jobs in parallel. Their real “teams” are people upstream and downstream from your department – not actually within your department. Those are the people that your group members need to do their jobs. Just because a bunch of people do the same role doesn’t mean they are a team.

    They don’t want to speak up because they’re worried about a knife in the back from each other, or credit and idea stealing, or becoming the bearer of bad news – they are worried about looking worse than each other to you, the boss. They have no real motivation to help each other, from your description.

    If you want them to act like a team, you have to fundamentally change this dynamic by giving them actual shared goals. And that may not actually make sense for your workplace (I have no idea, but you seem to be getting by without). Maybe instead, you should be trying to promote their growth with some friendly/profitable competition.

  35. Xarcady*

    What worked for me in a similar situation was to break the team up into groups of two, hand them pens and paper and give them a very specific problem to brainstorm–in my team’s case, how to simplify sending finished teapots to clients. They had half the meeting time to brainstorm and then we used the last half of the meeting to listen to every single idea.

    After the meeting I wrote up all the ideas, even the ones I didn’t much like and sent them to the team with instructions to think about them and choose their favorite ideas for discussion in the next meeting. This really got them talking and more importantly, thinking. They became a great team with lots of good ideas. Made my job very easy.

    Now, the OP doesn’t really have enough people to break into groups. But perhaps try giving the team a targeted, focused question and then leaving the room for 20 minutes or so to let them brainstorm by themselves.

    Oh, and snacks. Snacks really helped get people relaxed.

  36. Geoffrey B*

    At my work we often rotate chair duty for meetings rather than defaulting to the boss doing it. Senior staff might still lead discussion for some individual topics, but getting junior staff to run the agenda seems to help break the ice.

  37. alanna*

    Also remember that inexperienced employees aren’t necessarily good at workplace norms. If you know exactly what you want the meeting to do and what valuable contributions looks like, it might be worth it to spell it out with everyone in one-on-one meetings (assuming you do those). “Fergus, you’re so thoughtful and have such great ideas, and I’d love to see you speak up more about them in meetings. If you’re not already doing this, the night before, you should think about what you’re going to say about what you’re working on and how the rest of the group can contribute.”

    I’ve been meaning to do this for months with the team I co-manage — they’re incredibly smart people, but when they talk about their work with us and their peers, it’s often very tentative (“so I was thinking a little bit about working on Y…”), when what we’d like is for them to bring more specific and thought-through proposals with some knowledge of what they’d like to get out of talking about with the group. But if no one tells them what we’re looking for, how are they supposed to know?

  38. 2mc1pg*

    OP, for what it’s worth look up “SCRUM Meetings.”

    Scrum is a methodology used in software development, but adaptable elsewhere. Most importantly, it’s focused on (1) high engagement and (2) as little downtime as possible.

    Scrum requires engagement from each person in a meeting, but it’s not so high stakes that it’s intimidating. Basically, it every person to state: This is what I’m working on, these are my blocks or hindrances, these are my plans.

    If someone else in the meeting hold the keys to those blocks, they dialog briefly on a solution. Then it moves on down the line. Everyone knows what everyone else is working on, who they are responsible to, and what the big picture is. And everyone contributes.

    Scrum meetings are often called stand-ups. Because everyone is supposed to remain standing, then go back to their desks and get back to work. Meaning as little downtime as possible.

    I’m not proposing Scrum Methodology as the end all be all. There is no all in one solution. But check it out, read up on it, and see what you can use that’s useful. The fact is younger workers today except more scrum-style than sit-down style management.

  39. Lars the Real Girl*

    “It’s stressful for me and in some ways I find it quite rude.”

    Please re-look at this situation in terms of them being “rude”. One person constantly on their phone or disengaged in meetings is rude; an entire room of people constantly being disengaged speaks more to you as the meeting holder than it does to them.

    In management when I’ve seen a pattern that spans across employees, step 1 is to usually look at what I am doing, vs what they are doing. Employees not speaking up, especially when it’s all of them, is a time to look at what type of environment you’ve created and if there are ways you’re making their contributions difficult.

  40. mAd Woman*

    I’m in a similar position as OP – hired into a new role managing a team of entry level people (at most, two years out of college) who had been unsupervised for a year and previously managed by someone who sounds very dysfunctional by all accounts. The team underwent a massive change by me coming on board – they had to report to someone again, meetings were scheduled, project management was implemented, and they were expected to participate.

    I found that the best way to get them engaged is to bring up a issue and ask for their ideas to solve it. The issue is often a strategy question that they usually would not have access to a their level of the company.

    It’s been six months now and the team is so much more engaged and productive. There has been some turnover of folks who just could not adjust to having a boss again. Overall, it just took time and trust both ways.

  41. Anastasia Beaverhausen*

    Twice in my life I’ve had a boss who truly wanted the business and the employees to succeed, understanding that goes hand in hand. Those two bosses were willing to listen, set aside their ego, and take a risk. And those two bosses shared success too, either with recognition or money, and they had your back no matter what. Those two businesses were very successful. Every other boss has seen any clever idea as a threat or a cost and taken the easy way out as in it’s much easier to tighten belts and cut staff or hours to show profit. I don’t waste my brain or my breath anymore at my current job. When I share suggestions or ideas I am usually scoffed at. The boss doesn’t want to hear them, he just wants to say he had a meeting and the solution is to reduce hours, cut benefits or perks, et cetera. By the way, we are out of perks sans the filtered water dispenser. I bend over backwards sourcing the cheapest supplies to defend that few dollars a month but I’m sure there will come a day.. It’s sad because our staff for the most part would perform miracles for even common respect or a pat on the back, but that ship has sailed.

  42. ErinW*

    I may take some heat for saying this, but here goes. In a previous job where I was a Data Entry Clerk, the director used to hold full staff meetings and try to get us to “brainstorm.” And I rarely said anything, and I thought, and verbalized to friends, “I don’t get paid enough to have ideas, that’s your job.” If a boss is asking entry-level workers for big picture ideas, I’m not surprised they are not getting anything back. Entry-level workers probably don’t have the experience or knowledge of the field to come up with anything good, and they don’t have the status or the capital to actually make anything happen. If they do somehow come up with something great and hand it to the director, who gets rewarded? The director. Maybe in a non-profit there is more passion and excitement for the mission, but when there isn’t, all-hands-on-deck brainstorming is an empty gesture.

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