(This is excerpted from my talk at calibratesf.com on Sept 30, 2016.  View slide deck! Calibrate 2016: How to Grow Your Happiness In Meetings

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As a leader, you’ll be both hosting and going to a lots of meetings. If it’s something you get great at, it will have a huge impact on both your happiness, and the happiness of those you work with.

Here’s what I’m going to be covering in this blog post:

  1. plan for success
  2. create psychological safety
  3. ask for feedback on facilitation

Let’s jump in… I often end up talking to clients about upcoming meetings that they are nervous about. Here are the questions I typically ask that help them host a successful meeting:


The first question really forces them to think about what outcome they want. Will the group arrive at a decision? Will people give their feedback? Will everyone be more informed about something?

Are the right people going to be in the room? If the meeting is about making a decision, you will likely need to include all the stakeholders. If more people tend to show up than are truly necessary, you may need to un-invite some of the attendees to create a more manageable group.  When I’m thinking about who to invite and how big to make it, I like to keep in mind that a group of 10 engineers for an hour costs about $1000 in salary.

Is the decision maker clear? Are you asking for the group to reach consensus? Or give you opinions that you or someone else will use to decide?

I love thinking about who your allies might be…
Who would stand to gain if what you want ends up happening?

If you talk to them beforehand, might you increase your chances of success?

Finally, think about what the cause would be if this meeting completely failed…

What went wrong? How would you prevent it?

So, those are some of the logistics I like to consider.

The next thing that has a huge impact on meetings is psychological safety. This might sound touchy-feeling, but it’s grounded in scientific research:

In 2012, Google did a research project called Project Aristotle. A manager in the People Analytics dept studied 180 of Google’s most successful teams, to try to figure out what makes them tick. He was thinking that maybe the most successful teams would be all introverts, or have a particular style of meeting, but the research showed that the most successful teams really came down to only two things:


Conversational turn-taking is the when everyone on the team speaks roughly the same amount (not that everyone goes in a circle and gets 3m each to speak, but on average, everyone talks the same amount over time). High social sensitivity is the ability to read how other people are feeling based on their tone of voice, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues.

Psychology researchers refer to conversational turn-taking and high social sensitivity as aspects of Psychological safety, which is a fancy way of saying that you won’t get embarrassed or rejected for saying wrong thing. So, Google’s research indicates that psychological safety, more than anything else, is critical to making a team work.

Here is another fascinating piece of research from UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab in 2008, from Matthew Liberman & Naomi Eisenberg.  The same part of your brain (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) registers signals for both physical pain & social pain.

So when someone says “my arm hurts” and “my feelings are hurt”, it is literally the same place in their brain that is registering that information.

So what does this research suggest? That the workplace is a SOCIAL SYSTEM, even for engineers.

Think back to the last time you were humiliated in a meeting. Most of us remember things like this really well. How did it feel in your body? How nice would it have been for someone to speak up for you?

What I find fascinating (and a bit terrifying), is that most engineering cultures of full of small microagressions related to ignorance. I’m not even talking about race or gender-based micro aggressions. Here are some of the things I have personally witnessed:


Essentially, they communicate to people in a meeting that you’d better watch your step, because not knowing something can be dangerous.  As a leader, you can (and should) stop this; here’s how:


First, you can share the results of the Google and UCLA studies with your team. I am often surprised by the pushback I get after sharing these; leaders say things like “well how am I going to work with people who are incompetent?!?” Of course you should insist that people learn things that are critical for their work; the point of psychological safety is that is OK to not know now as long as you are willing to learn.

Other things you can do are to reframe things you hear in meetings (whether you are a facilitator or a participant!), or speak for people who might not speak up for themselves. You could say “if I were Steve, I would feel put down by what you just said”. I want all of us to be able to be honest if we don’t know something.  You can also include mentoring and teaching in your career ladder, so that it’s clear it’s a skill that is valued. Finally, you can model not knowing yourself, by asking people on your team to explain things to you that you don’t know, rather than just faking it or asking in private. Seeing a powerful example of a leader asking for help or more information makes it safe for others to do so!

My final tip about more happiness in meetings is regularly asking for feedback. Have you ever sat in a really boring meeting, agonizingly waiting for it to be over? How would your experience change if you knew the facilitator would ask for feedback at the end, and be willing to change based on your suggestions? Asking for regular feedback in meetings unlocks the wisdom of the participants, so that they don’t feel trapped, AND it’s likely you’ll hear some great ways that you can improve as a faciliator. It might feel risky at first, but it’s amazing how quickly you can learn with regular feedback.

Finally, be unfailingly kind (h/t to Michael Lopp for this). You have no idea who in your next meeting might be going through a divorce, struggling with a difficult child or parent, suffering from an illness that you can’t see, or just having a bad day. If doing it for other people isn’t sufficient motivation, kindness and generosity have been linked to greater life satisfaction, stronger relationships, better mental and physical health, and generous people even live longer.

I hope you can use these tips to create one of the most successful and happy teams at your company!

If you’re interested in a class on engineering leadership, click here!