What are the fairest rules to use when running meetings? This might seem like an odd question. You might ask, “Fair to whom?” or, “What do you mean by fair?” I think it’s reasonable to concentrate on fairness to participants: the majority of those involved with the meeting. As to what being fair to participants might look like, let’s turn to the ideas of the moral and political philosopher John Rawls.
In his influential 1971 book A Theory of Justice , John suggested that “the fairest rules are those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.”
All meetings have rules, whether overt or covert, conscious or unconscious, that influence how they proceed. These rules are embedded into every aspect of the meeting, from the seating arrangements (1, 2, 3, 4) to the meeting formats employed. We usually think of rules as guides to process. But, at a deeper level, rules instantiate issues of status and power.
Status and power at meetings
I think of status at events as the relative levels of proclaimed or perceived social value assigned to or assumed by attendees. And power at events is an individual’s capacity to influence the actions, beliefs, or conduct of attendees.
Typically, but not always, higher status implies greater power at meetings.
In wider contexts, status is situational. The low status janitor at a big corporation may be the high status head of their family at home. Some say I have high status in the event industry, but when I’m facilitating a roomful of subject matter experts, I’m the most ignorant and lowest status person present.
At a traditional meeting, however, perceived status roles rarely change significantly during the event. This leads to a number of problems, which I described in my first meeting design book: Conferences That Work.
To overcome these problems, one of my goals for the participant-driven and participation-rich meetings I champion is to use process that deemphasizes old-school fixed status at meetings and emphasizes what I call real-time status.
The key process I use to do this is to ask the group to commit to specific agreements (rules, if you like) at the start of the event.
Here are the six agreements — The Four Freedoms plus two other agreements — that I’ve been using for years.
The fairest rules and my six agreements
Which brings us back to John Rawls’ intriguing and bold statement on what the fairest rules would be: “those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.”
Let’s use Rawls’ suggestion to explore the fairness of using the above six agreements at a meeting.
The first agreement…
…is that everyone has the right to express their point of view. At many events, only high status people talk. I remember the physics conferences I attended as a lowly graduate student, where the prize-winning physicist lectured for fifty minutes, and only his (yes, they were all guys) colleagues and rivals spoke at the end. The tacit assumption was that you didn’t speak unless you had something brilliant to say.
The first agreement I have a group make is that anyone has the right to share their opinion with others in the group. For a low status person (like me at those conferences), that is a great freedom to have. If I had explicitly been given it, I might well have had the courage to speak all those years ago.
High status individuals at the physics conferences reinforced their high status by speaking publicly. They maintained or gained status, at the expense of others who did not. That was not fair.
I think my first agreement clearly implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.
The second agreement…
…is that everyone has the freedom to ask questions. Like the first agreement, this freedom allows low status group members to speak up. In particular, it removes the—often self-imposed—barrier to asking a “stupid” question. How often have you not understood what someone said, but failed to ask them a clarifying question “because it might make you look stupid”?
Of course, having the freedom to ask a question, even if you’re worried it might make you look stupid, often has an unexpected outcome. It frequently turns out that other group members have the same question! And it’s often the case that the reason many people have the question is that the speaker has been unclear about what they were saying, or perhaps even said something incorrect.
Speaking truth to power often involves questioning what a speaker has said. High status individuals may not like this. So I think my second agreement also clearly implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.
I introduce the third agreement at meetings…
…by saying, “it’s about the F-word.” <Pause>. “Feelings.”
Meeting participants don’t, in general, spend much time expressing how they feel. Although that’s often the case because feelings aren’t relevant to a group discussion, sometimes people think or feel it’s inappropriate to share how they feel with others, especially to a group of strangers.
This agreement says it’s okay to talk about how you’re feeling. It gives individuals permission to talk about sensitive issues, if desired. Besides being potentially healthy for the sharer, it is often validating and helpful for group members who feel the same way. Talking about how you’re feeling reduces power inequities in meetings where dominant members try to push through a contentious decision. Giving participants the freedom to share how they feel can help ensure that more voices are heard.
Like the first two rules, this rule also supports low status and low power individuals in a group. So it also implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.
The fourth agreement…
…is a meta-agreement that gives participants the freedom to say that they don’t feel the three preceding agreements are being followed. Though I’ve never heard this freedom invoked at any conference I’ve facilitated, I feel confident that its existence, and the group awareness that everyone has agreed to it, helps prevent the kind of dismissal, shaming, and bullying behavior that can surface at traditional meetings.
In some ways, this agreement is the closest framing of Rawls’ fairness rules suggestion. It says not only have we agreed on rules that minimize power differentials but we also have the right to call out instances when these rules are not being followed.
The fifth agreement…
…is about keeping what is discussed while the group is together confidential. I’ve written in more detail about the value of this important agreement here. Interestingly, this agreement potentially benefits all participants, whether high or low power/status. Why? When anyone shares, they potentially reveal something about themselves. A group confidentiality agreement helps increase people’s feeling of safety, possibly making it more likely they will share something sensitive.
The corporate CEO risks confessing that they have been neglecting a company-wide issue for too long. A mid-level manager shares their difficulties working with their boss. A new hire summons the courage to ask what they think is a basic question, to which they believe they should know the answer. All these actions are more likely when the initiator trusts that the group will respect their confidentiality.
The fifth agreement, therefore, is probably the easiest agreement for high status group members to agree to. They have something to gain too. It epitomizes Rawls’ fairness rules suggestion.
The sixth agreement…
…is about staying on time.
A meeting may have a predetermined schedule, or the schedule may be negotiated and constructed on the fly, as typically occurs at peer conferences (aka unconferences). I have been at too many conferences where unchecked, self-important presenters run way over their allotted time, causing an inevitable train wreck with subsequent sessions truncated and even cancelled. (Here are a couple of my own unhappy experiences.)
Applying Rawls’ suggestion would mean that all presenters would agree to present as if they had been scheduled at any point in a meeting program: the first or last session, or at any time between. As the above article explains, the resulting program, where everyone stays on time, offers many advantages to everyone involved.
How do your meeting rules fare under Rawls’ fairness rules?
How do my six agreements fare under Rawls’ fairness rules?
Pretty well, I think!
Take a few minutes to think about the rules — overt or covert, conscious or unconscious — that you use to run your meetings. How does their fairness fare? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
If you discover you are still enabling power and status imbalances at your events, you are not serving your participants well.
What are you going to do about it?