One reason meetings get more bloated than old Elvis is the common belief that speaking is mandatory. Employees fear that if they say nothing, everyone will assume they have nothing to say. Sitting in silence, they imagine their reticence attracts all eyes. The L's on their foreheads burn like the scarlet A on Hester Prynne's chest.
So, desperate to contribute, they search their mental pockets for two cents to put in. In linguistics terminology, that two cents is a signifier: It represents engagement with the topic whether or not such engagement actually exists. Say the subject is a process change, and the employee can think of no helpful suggestions or criticisms. Instead, she dredges up an objection based on an isolated incident that occurred years earlier. ("If we number versions that way we'll eventually reach 1,776, and you remember the trouble that caused during the bicentennial!") Another ploy is to bring up a broad, works-in-all-contexts consideration, such as global markets, diversity, and/or changing customer attitudes. ("Yes, but we must consider global markets, diversity, and/or changing customer attitudes.") Sometimes the best she can produce is a vague question: "What are the next steps?" or "Are we sure this is the best possible option?" Just one of these pointless comments adds at least two or three minutes to the discussion.
Meeting leaders have been taught that there are no stupid questions (only stupid rules about there being no stupid questions), and most are too considerate to shut the offender down. This is how meetings grow. Every time a new person speaks, those who haven't done so feel still more pressure.
"Speak up and be counted" is, of course, a dictum of democratic societies. It is also bred in the bones of our educational system: All those teachers who made participation 20 percent of the grade have a lot to answer for. But company leaders are responsible too, if they fail to clarify what traits they most value. Quality of participation should matter more than quantity; smart thoughts and actions more than words. Let everyone have a chance to prepare for a meeting by publishing an agenda--unless the purpose of the meeting is to spring something on the staff. If there are employees whose insights you particularly want on a topic, tell them before the meeting so they can prepare. Be sure to tap everyone at different times, however, so no one feels unimportant. End meetings on time, with the reminder that anyone who hasn't had a chance to speak should come by your office or e-mail his or her ideas. The silent ones can then leave the room looking determined to do so at once.
Most important, never single out a quiet employee with a jovial, "Kent, we haven't heard from you yet." Employees who fear being put on the spot may block by introducing nonagenda items about which they do have opinions, and the meeting starts to hydroplane. To put everyone at ease, try occasionally attending a meeting at which you yourself have nothing to add--and add nothing. Let your staff see it's fine just to listen and to learn, and that you don't think silence equals the death of a career.
Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large. She can be reached at email@example.com.