Workplace Inclusivity EngagementMaking the most of meetings and other group collaboration takes effort. To yield the most productive and innovative results, a commitment must be made to planning and follow-up — especially by those tasked with leading.

One thing that cannot be overlooked, however, is the manner in which team members are engaged in the collaborative process. Depending on the dynamics of a specific team, or perhaps the culture of an organization as a whole, the impact of poor engagement can vary greatly. It can also be more difficult to resolve, which is why companies of all types and sizes should make a concerted effort to assess their engagement efforts

“In a lot of organizations, women do not feel included,” said Karin Athanas, a standards and conformity assessment expert, who shared her insights on engagement at meetings and helping all participants to feel heard at AEM’s recently held Product Safety & Compliance Seminar.

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“Women feel like they can’t be heard or are not taken seriously in meetings,” she continued. “They are often subjected to various microaggressions like eye-rolling and sighing. The consequences are that their ideas are rarely heard and sometimes they stop trying to be heard.”

Athanas currently serves as executive director of the TIC Council Americas, a testing, inspection and certification organization. She formerly served as executive officer and board president of Women in Standards, an organization that promotes inclusion in standardization and the growth and support of all under-represented groups in the standards process.

Athanas was quick to point out that not all women face microaggressions in the workplace. Additionally, it is not always a woman who ends up facing microaggression. Anyone can be subjected to those types of behaviors, particularly if they are part of the minority. And the word “minority” could refer to a wide range of characteristics, including:

  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Personality type
  • Tenure with an organization

Essentially, anyone who feels like the outsider has a higher likelihood of feeling under-engaged.

Meeting Pitfalls That Hinder Engagement

When someone feels under-engaged, the worst thing an organization can do is blame the person feeling under-engaged. Unfortunately, that happens all too often.

When someone points out that they weren’t called on at a meeting, for example, a common response is that the person should have spoken up, spoken up louder or spoken up more often. That is an inadequate response.

“When you tell a co-worker to ‘just speak up,’ you’re actually telling them that the norm is to be loud and interrupt others,” Athanas explained. “If they are the type of person who doesn’t feel comfortable doing that, they have become the outsider in another way. The problem is that you want everyone you work with in groups and committees to feel like they fit in.”

Some organizations excuse boisterous, oftentimes rude behavior by saying it is simply part of the company culture and way of doing things. Not every personality will mesh well with that type of culture.

“Maybe someone has some social anxiety,” Athanas said. “Maybe they are the type who needs to think and research topics to gain a better understanding before speaking up. Sometimes people just want to gain a better understanding of the people they are working with. Regardless, they are not the type of person to just blurt things out in a meeting. Maybe they even regard that as being rude and unprofessional and could never bring themselves to do it.”

Karin Athinas

“When a group has commonality, members can see themselves in one another. Even after the most difficult conversations where plenty of disagreement takes place, you can always lean back into the commonality to re-establish that sense of harmony and community in the group.” -- Standards and Conformity Assessment Expert Karin Athanas

On the other hand, engaging all members of the team requires recognition of the extroverts in the group, including those who tend to “talk to think.” These people often do a lot of talking and maybe some unintentional interrupting. Others in the group might get frustrated and think the extroverts are dominating conversation. It’s important to keep extroverted personalities on track, but still grant them some latitude to be themselves.

Another unfortunate byproduct of good engagement is conversation that occurs between a handful of team members. This can happen very easily because a lot of collaboration is happening.

“You might feel like everyone in the room is listening intently because all of this amazing information is being brought to light,” Athanas said. “But that might not be the case. The person sitting right next to you might feel excluded because he or she can’t get a word in. This is a huge pitfall in today’s age of digital meetings. Meeting organizers need to be aware of this and make sure those who wish to speak are given the opportunity.”

Advice for Those Who Feel Under-Engaged

For those who feel under-engaged, Athanas said it’s important to take a step back and give co-workers the benefit of the doubt.

“Even if you’re overlooked or shushed, there might be an innocent reason why a co-worker did that to you,” Athanas explained. For instance, the co-worker might be unusually stressed or have something going on in their personal life.

“Regardless, be careful not to get too upset right off the bat,” Athanas added.

After taking a deep breath, ask for help.

“Tell the group leader or any other member of the group that you’re trying to share your thoughts, but haven’t been given the chance,” Athanas said. “I love that approach because now it’s all out there. The next time you have a meeting, this will be on their mind. Asking for help is always a good idea.”

Thirdly, be open to advice. It may simply be a matter of going about things a different way. For example, a new group member wants to toss out a new idea, but it’s not part of that meeting’s agenda. That problem could be solved simply by raising a hand when the group has outlined a more formal way to ask for the floor during a meeting. Figure out how the group functions and adapt methods accordingly.

Advice for Those Who Need to Engage

For those who have no problem being heard but want to do a better job at engaging others, Athanas also has some advice.

“Don’t be afraid to take a step back at the end of a meeting,” she said. “Ask yourself if you talked too much or really heard what others were saying. Look at your notes. Did you have thoughtful consideration of other ideas that were presented? I often take my own meeting minutes just to test myself and see how well I was paying attention.”

Also, ask for feedback. “Lean on someone in the meeting you are comfortable with and will be honest with you,” Athanas recommended. “Ask how they feel you performed in the meeting. Ask if they think your thoughts and ideas were helpful or if you should change your approach. Then be open to some correction. They might tell you that you tend to talk a bit too long. Maybe you can try stating your thought, but then wait to hear what others might have to say before continuing on.”

Athanas said she likes to make notes when others are talking.

“Then I often approach someone later on, perhaps during a break, to talk more about a specific topic,” she said. “This can work well because individual back-and-forth can end up taking over a meeting.”

The Importance of Group Discovery

Regardless of which side of the engagement fence one finds himself or herself on, Athanas said it is always constructive to get to know colleagues and officemates. There are some simple exercises a team can do together to gain a better understanding of personalities and styles.

Athanas offered some key questions that could be part of the group discovery exercise:

  • Who likes to talk through problems?
  • Who spends a lot of time planning for meetings?
  • What experiences do you have that help shape your thought processes?
  • What types of information do you need before making a decision?

It can also be constructive to identify something everyone in the group has in common. Whether that’s a favorite local restaurant, sports team, TV show, etc. does not matter. Commonalities help build harmony, and harmony helps build more collaborative teams.

“When a group has commonality, members can see themselves in one another,” Athanas explained. “Even after the most difficult conversations where plenty of disagreement takes place, you can always lean back into the commonality to re-establish that sense of harmony and community in the group.”

Be an Advocate

To truly create a more collaborative team, Athanas said it’s important to speak up on behalf of everyone in a group. That means bringing certain issues to light that are having a negative impact, which can be a difficult task for introverts and those who deem themselves to be “outsiders.”

“That’s why it’s so important to advocate for each other,” Athanas said. “If I’m the only woman in a group and am being ignored, it is very helpful if one of the men in the room backs me up. That adds legitimacy and another layer of authenticity.”

A helpful thing leaders can do actually takes place right before the conclusion of a meeting.

“You could say, ‘Let’s just go around the room one last time and make sure we know everyone’s feeling on this,” Athanas said. “By doing something like that, you’re not picking a fight or saying the group is doing something wrong. You’re just saying that you want to make sure everyone in the room is heard, and that is very powerful.”

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