Does your team show up in meetings?

Expect participation in meetings, and FINISH STRONG FRIDAYS TECH LEADS!

“A lot of people think it takes millions of dollars to give back or inspire, but just you showing up means a lot.” - Kyle Kuzma

You were walking down the hall a week or so ago when your manager saw you and pulled you into a conference room. 

“I know it seems like the marketing team has been talking about Project Nemo forever, but it turns out Nemo just got the greenlight, so we’re going to need to open up a few new custom APIs for them to interact with our services. Do you think we can prioritize it?”

“Sure thing, boss,” you reply. You’re always eager to take on new work and new projects.

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Your team provides critical payment APIs to internal clients and projects, and you’re the tech lead focused on ten or twelve of the APIs. 

After reading the latest specs and plans for Nemo, you figure it’s not going to be particularly hard. You’ll probably need three of your software engineers working on it. Plus, it could be a good opportunity to get part of the code base off the old MySql database and onto a graph database, as you’ve been hoping to do—so it could be a cool project.

Over the weekend you gave it some thought, came up with a compelling vision, and, after getting caught up on emails on Sunday night, scheduled a meeting for Monday afternoon with your senior engineer and two other engineers who are a little more junior. 

Monday afternoon comes faster than you would have liked, and the team shows up in the Catalina conference room, which has a big whiteboard and seats about eight comfortably. 

“So it turns out Project Nemo is finally going to happen. The company’s been talking about it so long that we probably forgot what it means. But it’s going to be a huge win for everyone, including our team, if we can pull it off. And our gateways are going to be critical to making it work.”

You pause, and the team looks at you, expectantly; they say nothing but seem to want you to go on. So you stand up after a few counts of silence, grab a Dry Erase marker and start drawing some boxes. The room is very quiet. The only real noise, other than you talking, is the squeaking sound of the marker on the whiteboard. 

“This is even going to be a cool opportunity to replace some of the MySql stuff with some kind of graph database here,” you point to one of the boxes on the board. “What do you think?”

The team looks at you. They look at the board. They blink a lot. After a few awkward moments of silence, you decide to break the silence by diving into more details and assigning aspects of the project to different people. 


I know showing up like this in meetings is normal. I imagine it’s a scene playing out in offices and Zoom calls all over the world. But just because something is normal does not make it good. The most common deviation from this scene I just painted is when you’ve got one or two team members who speak up a bit too freely and tend to dominate the conversation, for better or worse 

Just as I remind you all the time about the importance of showing up, your team needs to show up too. And participating in meetings is an important time for them to show up. 

Merriam Webster defines “showing up” in a number of ways, but I think my favorite is “to become actively involved with others and make an active contribution.”

I strongly believe that getting your team engaged is a critical part of what you need to do as a tech lead, and even more so as an engineering manager or CTO. 

When the team isn’t actively involved in meeting or even hallway conversations, it may not be conclusive evidence that engagement is low, and there could be cultural or individual forces at play keeping them quiet, but it still worries me a great deal when team members are so quiet.

You may have been very open, you might have created an environment where people are invited to talk or express their ideas. You likely have been waiting for more engagement for some time.

Expect participation

Personally, I don’t like to wait for people to participate. I tend to reach out and call on people and proactively draw them out, so I was super excited to read Five Ways to Improve Employee Engagement in Meetings …and Why it Matters, where Paul Axtell drives home some points that I’ve been kind of intuiting my way around for some time. 

In his wonderful article, he actively wonders how it is that managers got to a point where it’s ok for people to not participate in meetings.

[But it] doesn’t matter how we got here. We are not in a good place. The norm in many organizations is that supervisors and managers have embraced an unwritten rule not to call on people during meetings. And people expect to walk into a meeting and only speak when they feel like it—a deadly combination.

And Axtell advocates roughly the same as I do too. First of all, set the expectation that the team will need to participate in meetings. Even if you team members have nothing specific to add to a conversation or don’t know what they can, they should say that. Being silent communicates nothing, and they aren’t showing up.

Second, as the leader of the meeting, actively call on people and ask for the contribution to the discussion. Merely inviting them to speak up is insufficient. Obviously, this can be done very badly if you call people out with the wrong intention. But if you call on them directly with the intention of truly wanting their insights and contributions, you should be safe.

What’s wrong with people just being quiet?

At this point, you might be asking yourself, “Why? Why should I do this? If people don’t want to talk or are shy, then why should I make them uncomfortable by calling on them? It’s just going to make bothof us uncomfortable.”

Glad you asked. Axtell highlights five awesome reasons that you should read on your own. I’m going to riff on them a bit here.

First, “people want to add value.” Look, people get up in the morning, get showered, sit in traffic, leave their families behind to show up at work. Sure they want to get paid, but for most of us, doing great work is an important part of life (should be, anyway). And participating in meetings as a very visceral, three-dimensional way to do it. Especially for software engineers, who don’t often see each other’s work or skills, meetings are a rare opportunity to be seized.

Second, “participation correlates to engagement.” Hell yes! Axtell makes the important point that people will feel a lot more connected to an issue or project if they actually engage in dialog about it. But there’s a further point too: the rest of the team is going to be more energized by the discussion and feel like this is a worthwhile project.

Third, the meeting is a unique moment in time where everyone’s unique perspective needs to be included. Sure, you can add points later with some follow up email or Slack message, but if people don’t step up and participate, the moment will be lost forever. You literally cannot recreate that moment—ever. 

Fourth, “to have no voice is to be excluded.” This is critically important, and subtle. Even if people aren’t speaking up because of their own insecurities or personal reasons for not doing so, there’s still a big risk that, by not speaking up, people on the team are going to feel excluded. Even if it’s their own choice. Give them an opportunity to share their voice!

The Podcast 🎧

To prepare for today’s issue, I went on a rant on my podcast. I think it was pretty entertaining. Click here to listen!

Thanks for reading! ❤️

Have a nice weekend tech leads!

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