In preparation for a recent training on effective teams I came across this statement concerning meetings: “Silence = Agreement.”  That’s a pretty direct statement and one that I know I’ve heard versions of for years.  It’s a simple concept.  If you don’t agree with something speak up, but reality isn’t always that simple.

As leaders and managers it is our responsibility to create a culture in which ideas are shared, people engage in positive conflict and everyone feels comfortable speaking their mind. I’ve left meetings with direct reports and thought how great the meeting went and was excited to see the outcomes carried out. Then I’d get a flow of people into my office to individually discuss the issues I thought had been addressed in the meeting.  Something about the process, environment, or culture prevented them from engaging with the topic at the assigned time.

What was it?
We won’t always know the reason someone chooses not to speak up about an issue, but there are some common themes that seem to come out in the work I do with clients.

  • Preference–Does the person not like to speak up in groups?  Do they need time to process information before they settle on an opinion and a course of action.  Would they prefer the opportunity to submit comments in writing or discuss them directly with an individual or two rather than in a large group?  Do they not like direct conflict over ideas with colleagues?
  • Culture–Does the culture of the organization or team truly support an open exchange of ideas? Are individuals allowed to monopolize the conversation or shut down contrary opinions?  Do one or two people have the ear of the decision-maker and therefore others don’t want to disagree with them publicly?  Do people listen to one another or do they cut off certain individuals regularly? Do people feel heard when they take a risk and state an unorthodox or unique idea?
  • Environment–Is the meeting environment or setting conducive to productive work?  Is the room configured properly for participation and engagement.  Are there environmental factors that are distracting people or interfering with their ability to communicate? Does the technology you are using work for its purpose? Are people on their phones, computers or other devices?
  • Process–Does the process meet the purpose of the meeting? Are people given multiple ways to contribute that meet their communication styles and preferences.  Does the structure of the meeting support or inhibit constructive discussion? Is there an agenda and a facilitator for the meeting?
  • History–What has been the team’s experience with meetings?  Are they engaging? Are they productive? Are they fun? Do the decisions actually get carried out?

How do we fix it?
There is no one answer.  Spend the time to find out why people aren’t contributing and create a solution that addresses that specifically.  It could be the way you run meetings or the level of trust on the team.  It could be that the room is awful or the technology doesn’t work.  It could be that you have a couple people who need to be reined in a bit in meetings.

When it comes to challenges like this, I often hear leaders say, “I don’t have the time to fix this.  They just need to speak up.”  You can absolutely take that approach, but think of all the time being wasted in meetings where you aren’t getting the best from the people in the room.  Think about negative impact on your team from sitting in unproductive meetings, or on the people who may not feel like they have an opportunity to contribute.  When you do the math, figuring out the issue and addressing it may seem like the better option.

True North specializes in helping teams and organizations achieve better results.  We are Authorized Partners for Everything DiSC® and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™, two transformative tools we love to share with clients.