Is your organization suffering from a silent but dangerous illness? It hurts productivity, damages the bottom line, and can kill morale. Many companies feel the symptoms everyday – but have grown accustomed to them as an unpleasant way of life. Some say it’s a lack of engagement, others believe it’s poor management, often it’s said to be a little of both. What is this illness? You could call it Non-participation Syndrome – aka people not participating in meetings.

While it sounds trivial, people not participating or contributing in meetings is a waste of valuable company time and resources, a hinderance to business performance, and potentially a symptom of more troublesome underlying issues.

The Symptoms:

Sometimes non-participation is apparent, other times it may be so well hidden you don’t know it’s happening. Thus, you need to know the symptoms to identify if your team or organization has this illness. Here are a few of the common symptoms:

Quiet Meetings

The most direct and obvious symptom is quiet meetings. Simply, people don’t say anything. It may be one person, or the entire group, but someone isn’t participating. This isn’t always bad, as not everyone has to participate all the time, and silence is required for listening. However, if being “reserved” becomes a hinderance to the overall group or the purpose of the meeting, then this is an organizational issue that needs to be addressed.

Too Much Agreement

Many say conflict is bad – but that’s not always the case when it comes to meetings. Any productive meeting needs an element of conflict or debate or some type of challenging thought or disagreement. Without it, it’s a sign that new ideas aren’t being generated and critical thinking isn’t occurring, which is the point of having a meeting in the first place. The signs of this issue are often instant agreement, nothing in addition being added, or no questions being asked.

Off Topic Talk

Sometimes meetings aren’t quiet – but are just the opposite – very talkative. The problem occurs when the topic of conversation is anything but the purpose of the meeting. You may have noticed this when the group is chatting, and there is sudden silence when the topic of the meeting is brought up. While some off-topic talk is helpful to form group connection and increase positivity (which is essential for brainstorming) a problem arises when off topic talk is the only real talk that occurs.

Devices, day dreaming, and distractions

If it seems like group members spend a lot of time “taking notes” on their computer, using their cell phone, or staring off into space, then your meeting isn’t living up to its full potential. Not being “present” is disrespectful to others and wasteful of the valuable time of other participants. Bringing this topic up directly to individual offenders and establishing meeting ground rules is often the first step to curb this kind of behavior.


One sided conversation

We all know that “guy” who is more than happy to fill the airtime – discussing their latest progress and updates – while the rest of the group pretends to listen. However, meetings aren’t meant to be monologues. If your meetings are driven by just a few members of the group, then this can be a symptom or reason for non-participation. In these cases, it may be valuable to use some redirecting tactics to help others to participate. Alternatively, if the meeting is achieving its purpose with only a few members participating, potentially examine if all members need to be in attendance.

The After Meeting

Everyone knows the after meeting. Once the actual meeting is over, the group splits up and shares the real information with their closest associates. These meetings can be good – as any communication is better than no communication – but it’s certainly not ideal. Often these meetings occur when members of the group feel like their idea wasn’t heard, or they need to get clarity on a topic. If the team doesn’t feel comfortable enough to raise these issues in the group, then there are some key issues to work through to start improving your meetings.


The Causes:

The causes of non-participation can be fairly simple or deeply ingrained into an organization’s culture. Likewise, the source may derive from the individuals themselves, or be part of a poorly designed element of the businesses structure. While there are many causes, several of the more common causes are: personality traits, lack of trust, fear, and no motivation.

Personality Dynamics

Personality plays a key role in how people behave in meetings. Introverts will naturally participate less than extroverts, and assertive individuals are going to be more willing to share their views than those who are passive. Additionally, when combined as a group, the unique personality traits of each member mesh together create a unique group dynamic that is different than when looking at the members individually. This makes taking personality factors into account even more complex and important when you are working to improve meeting participation.

Lack of trust

One of the more common, and deeper, causes of non-participation is a lack of trust. Trust is essential for connection to occur, and connection is required for communication. If there’s no trust, there’s no communication. While there are myriad causes of an absence of trust, one overarching reason is the dislike of “getting vulnerable” with other people. To earn trust, one must first do something to engender trust – which is often becoming vulnerable. If you become vulnerable to another, they will say that either you are naïve, or that you trust them not to hurt you. This demonstration of trust of them then makes them feel like they can trust you in return.


Closely related to lack of trust is fear. There are many fears that may prevent people from fully or honestly participating in a meeting. Some fears include conflict, saying something that may cause embarrassment, or seeming unprepared. Like trust, fear can be deeply rooted in past events – either at the current company, or at previous places of employment – and can take time to resolve.

Lack of trust can also lead to fear. Take the opposite scenario for example. If you completely trust a person you’re talking to, do you fear saying something “wrong?” Likely not. If you trust them, you know they won’t purposely embarrass you or make you feel bad.

It should be noted that while some fear is real, other fear isn’t. One needs to stay grounded in the current reality to overcome false fears. For example, new employees will often carry over fears and cultural norms from previous workplaces, which simply are no longer valid at their new job. It takes time to overcome these fears, but regular encouragement from their leader can help speed up the healing process.

No motivation

The desire for more job success and recognition is often a motivating factor behind participating in meetings. Simply, people are more likely to speak up in meetings and offer an idea if they can see it benefiting them personally. However, individuals often see no benefit from participation.

In theory, if you produce value for the business, you should get some value (a reward) in return. But in reality, for many just showing up and not making mistakes is good enough to get your paycheck. Going above and beyond is just wasted effort. This can create a culture of ambivalence and make meetings seem like a waste of time. If they never had to participate before, and never had the need to prove their value, then why would they start now?


The Cure

Non-participation can be a complex illness to cure. However, there are some remedies that can help to relieve the symptoms and address more surface level causes.


As a meeting leader, it’s helpful to take some time to prepare for a meeting. With a busy schedule and holding meeting after meeting, it’s easy to just “wing it” and walk in and figure it out. But this prevents you from getting the most value from team during a meeting.

Preparation starts with determining who should be in the meeting. Choosing participants goes beyond “who needs to be there” and should also take organizational dynamics into account. The number of participants, their personalities, and their existing relationship to one another all effect group dynamics. To counteract a quiet group, you may find it valuable to bring in someone who doesn’t “need to be there”, if they are skilled at getting others to participate or help the group form.

Also, at the bare minimum, be sure to prepare the team in advance with the general topic of the session and the “type” of meeting this will be. There are many types of meetings – brainstorming, problem solving, information sharing, decision making, status updates, team building, etc. – all of which require different preparation methods. Don’t assume members know why they are there, just because it’s on the calendar.

Proper Facilitation

When facilitating, remember to consider both the purpose and the audience.

For instance, a meeting with the purpose of “brainstorming” will need a different facilitation style from a status update. “Group thinking” sessions require much more restraint and tact to get the most (and best) ideas from your group. In contrast, “report out” meetings require the team to prepare in advance, and the leader must offer clear structure and feedback.

Likewise, one must take the audience into account. A group of introverts will need more time and more direct questions than a group of extroverts. However, you won’t have to spend as much effort pulling on the reigns to keep the group on track. Thus, every group needs a unique style of facilitation to get the optimal result.

How do you improve your facilitation? One method is to simply ask the “audience.” After a meeting ask for feedback from the group or select individuals to see how you are doing. What can make these meetings better? Did we accomplish what we set out to accomplish? Was the meeting enjoyable? Honestly seeking this feedback for improvement will help determine what you should focus on to get people participating.

Prompt Participation

It may be commonsensical, but a great method to get people to participate is to ask them to. This can be done before the meeting, or during the meeting. For example, if it’s a problem-solving meeting, it may be of value to assign someone the “devil’s advocate” role in advance. This helps prevent over agreement and groupthink and increases healthy conflict. Also, you can ask each team member to prepare something to share and discuss at the meeting. This will go a long way to help self-conscious individuals, as it allows them to formulate their ideas in advance, and not have to “wing it.”

Finally, during the meeting, ask direct questions. If someone isn’t participating, ask them a direct question to get them more engaged. If they are daydreaming, this will hopefully wake them up. Or, if they are too shy or afraid to offer their ideas, this moves them out of their comfort zone.

Praise Participation

Finally, reward positive behavior when it’s seen. If someone jumps in who is normally in the background, thank them for their contribution and emphasize its value. You’re trying to increase trust, remove fear, and increase the motivation to contribute. Offering positive reinforcement and praise helps to improve each of those areas. If the group dynamic allows it, you can even make a friendly competition out of who makes the most helpful contributions.

The opposite is also true – negative reinforcement and correction will be needed at times. If someone starts to knock down ideas, or creates a negative environment, be sure to stop it as soon as possible. A single negative remark can undo many positive comments. It’s your job as facilitator to cut off negativity at the pass.

Summarize and Follow-up

Having a good note taker who can concisely record the key events of the meeting provides a record of what happened and increases the importance of the event.  Keeping the “minutes” in a common area as well as providing copies to the participants creates an historic record to help track progress.

Similarly, creating action steps that are then followed-up on reinforces the importance of the meeting and shows that something is going to happen because of their participation.  Instead of meetings being a waste of time, the participants will learn that what happens in a meeting can result in a change to their work requirements and, consequently, that participation is a key to having influence over their own job satisfaction.