27 September 2023

Supporting the quiet ones at team meetings

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May Busch* has some advice for handling meetings dominated by a few individuals while the majority remains mute.

One of the challenges we face as leaders is getting the most from every member of the team.

Where this shows up is in team meetings.

So often, just a few dominate the conversation while others hardly say a word.

You need a diverse set of inputs and that means hearing from everyone, but not everyone is comfortable speaking in a meeting.

It could be cultural.

They could need time to think and reflect before saying something and that doesn’t always fit into the timeframe of a meeting.

It could be you’re doing all the talking.

For me, it was fear of losing face and feeling intimidated by my peers who always seemed to know more than me.

Early on in my career, I struggled to speak up in meetings.

I knew I ‘should’ say something, but was afraid to sound ignorant or look foolish.

I’d think of something to say, then wrestle with myself to get up the courage to say it, and by the time I got up the courage, someone else would have made the point.

Whatever the reason people aren’t speaking up, it’s a problem because this means you aren’t getting the most from your team.

This is where psychological safety comes in.

Professor at Harvard Business School, Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “the belief the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”.

Not wanting to take personal risk is a big reason people hold back.

Am I going to sound ignorant? Will I be the one pouring cold water on everyone else’s enthusiasm?

It takes courage to speak up.

Unless you make feeling free to speak up the norm in your team, you can’t expect it to magically happen.

The thing about psychological safety is it’s a felt sense.

It’s invisible, but everyone can feel it.

It’s the mood in the room, and it can come and go.

When people have a sense of belonging and where there’s trust and respect, you’re more likely to have psychological safety prevail.

Even then, people can feel uncomfortable saying certain things and hold back.

It could be out of fear of sounding ignorant or being laughed at.

It could be out of not wanting to make a colleague look bad.

If it needs to be said, you can play a role in encouraging it to come out.

The first step is noticing.

Then you can do something about it.

Here are three steps you can take to create psychological safety for your team.

Establish norms for how we want to be with each other:

A concept I like from coaching is ‘good contracting upfront’.

This means agreeing the way you’re going to work together before you start.

If you’ve already been working together as a team for a while, it can simply be agreeing at the start of the meeting or setting new terms of engagement.

Taking the time to agree ‘rules of engagement’ or ‘rules of belonging’ makes it much easier to enforce those agreements later on.

It means your team members can hold each other accountable rather than you having to step in all the time.

In a meeting context, some norms could be to share the airtime, be succinct, not interrupt whoever is speaking.

Adopt a ‘yes and’ rather than ‘no but’ approach, or have a ‘no checking email’ policy.

Live the norms you’ve established:

Establishing the norms is a great start, but they’re going to be useless if no one abides by them.

It’s especially important to call things out at the beginning to establish these new habits.

I like to give timely reminders, like quickly restating the key meeting etiquette norms at the start of the meeting.

Prevention is better than having to catch someone in the act and come in as the enforcer.

However, if things happen during the meeting that can hurt psychological safety, you must be prepared to step in.

For example, when someone repeats a point made earlier without giving the original person credit, it’s important for you to say something.

When you let it go unchecked, it can diminish someone’s confidence and make them feel unheard, even invisible.

Make it easy for people to engage:

Having established the norms and enforced them early and often, there still may be some team members who need encouragement.

That’s where you can play a key role as a leader.

For example, the way you run the meeting can make it easier or harder for people to speak up.

Notice whether the agenda topics lean toward just a few people dominating the meeting.

Check your own behaviour to see how you’re coming across — might you be seen as intimidating when you want to invite participation?

Observe whether a few naturally outgoing people dominate the conversation.

When this happens, make it easier for others to engage by inviting people to share their thoughts and observations.

To do this without putting anyone on the spot, you can get quiet team members involved by asking: “What points of view have we not yet considered?”

In some cases, it means approaching quieter team members prior to the meeting to let them know you would value their views and having them in the mix.

I remember what a difference it made to my confidence when my boss encouraged me to speak up, saying: “You know just as much as the guys, probably more.”

Finally, every person is different.

Rather than make assumptions, it’s best to have a conversation with team members individually.

Based on what they say, you can agree some ways to help your team member feel comfortable speaking in the meeting.

When they do, make it a positive experience for them.

*May Busch works with smart entrepreneurs and top managements to build their businesses. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared at maybusch.com.

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