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For decision making, speaking is silver – but so is silence

Some people talk too much in meetings, others too little. Good leaders can foster high-quality conversations by creating safe environments.

Achmed the dead terrorist
“Silence! I kill you!”

Change is the result of decisions, many of which are made in meetings. Meetings are a way for their participants to exchange different ideas and viewpoints, but unfortunately due to ineffective communication.

Merely improving communication is not a guarantee for effective change. But the inverse, ineffective communication, likely does prevent effective change.

This article looks at the actions that leaders can take to improve the quality of communication during meetings, specifically when decisions need to be made.

Before actions can be taken to improve the quality of communication in meetings we first need to understand what can make them unproductive.

Many of us will have been in unproductive meetings where only senior participants offered their ideas and viewpoints, while junior participants remained silent. Such meetings are caused by a lack of psychological safety, which is a belief that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes is expected, and feasible, and is best summarised as a sense of permission for candour.

What meetings need is the right kind of voice and right kind of silence. This idea is neatly summarised in what the article’s authors, Edmondson and Besieux, call a productive conversation matrix:

Type of contribution
UnproductiveProductive
VoiceSpeaking upDisruptingContributing
Remaining silentWithholdingProcessing

In this matrix there are four archetypical participation modes (withholding, disrupting, contributing, and processing) which are grouped based on two dimensions, voice (speaking up or remaining silent) and type of contribution (productive or unproductive).

Through the use of simple guidelines and principles, meeting participants can be steered away from unproductive modes towards more productive behaviour.

Diminish withholding

Meetings in which ideas and viewpoints are met with little resistance are often short. They might even feel productive. But ultimately, the decisions that result from such meetings are suboptimal and can even have disastrous consequences!

For example, Netflix lost millions of subscribers and more than 75% of its stock value when they messed up their initial transition from a DVD rental company to a video streaming platform due to a bad decision by its CEO that wasn’t challenged until it was too late.

Participants may have different reasons to withhold information. At best, people hold back because they feel their contributions would be unnecessary, e.g. when they believe that someone is always right or when they see that no one else disagrees or complains. More concerning are situations in which people assume that their contributions will be ignored or even shot down.

Rejection of ideas – especially when done publicly – has a large negative effect. Not only will the person who voiced the idea be , others will be more inclined to withhold their ideas as well. This effect is especially pronounced when differences exist in race, gender, or positions of power.

Fortunately, there are many ways to encourage people to speak up:

  • Frame sessions as a learning problem. Highlight the uncertainty and complexity of the challenge at hand.

  • Explain that good results can only be achieved through combination of the perspectives of each participant.

  • Make it clear that you know you don’t have all the answers. Stress the value of the lessons you learned from your own prior failures.

  • Ask open-ended questions which demonstrate that you value reflection and speaking up.

  • Appreciate others’ comments, without immediately judging the value of the content.

  • When someone speaks up, encourage other team members to add their insight to what was shared.

  • After someone shares an idea or opinion, invite others to list advantages or what they see in this line of thought.

  • Build in an opportunity for employees to sketch out their ideas individually or in small sub-groups before they address the whole team.

  • Explicitly invite contributions from participants who look hesitant or unduly quiet.

Minimise disrupting

Some things are better left unsaid. We’ve already seen that disagreement quickly becomes rare when it is punished or belittled by leaders or other senior participants. But there are other, more subtle ways to derail conversations.

For instance, by engaging in off-topic small talk during meetings. While it also takes up valuable time, preventing others from providing more valuable input.

Somewhat similarly, speaking up about issues with peers in a way that lets off steam, but makes no real difference is equally unproductive. The Boeing 737 MAX groundings are a good example of what can go wrong when issues are communicated incorrectly. Concerns must be voiced in formal meetings with people who are in a position to instigate change, so that issues can actually be addressed.

Even seemingly innocuous actions, like asking people to bring your A-game to the table can be disruptive, as they can inadvertently raise the bar and cause decent ideas to be “filtered out” because participants do not believe they deserve an A.

There are several techniques to minimise disrupting voices:

  • At the start of a meeting, clarify what the meeting topic or goal is, as well as the timeframe, to minimise input that is off-topic.

  • Insist on adherence to company values, e.g. “be respectful to others”.

  • Recognise that people are often unaware of the impact of their behaviour, and will not change it unless told to do so.

  • Give feedback by first describing the behaviour without any form of judgment, then the effect it has on you, and finally why it had this effect.

  • Differentiate between impact and intention. For instance, wandering off-topic might stem from a well-intended effort to break the ice or ease the tension.

Sometimes disrupting voice can be minimised by recognising when meetings are not the best way to convey information. At Amazon, meetings are accompanied by six-page memos with FAQs. This eliminates the need for much of the discussion and allows the meeting to be focussed on a few unanswered questions.

Promote contributing

Valuable contributions are those that provide relevant information, ideas or opinions, but also may also involve verbalising agreement, building on a concept, asking a question, or constructive disagreement.

Contributions are more than just the reverse of withholding. Good comments and questions nurture a climate of psychological safety in which people understand that candour is welcome.

The authors offer the following advice to promote contributions:

  • Good meetings have a healthy mix of advocacy and inquiry. Participants should be trained so that they are skilled at both.

  • Make sure that conversations are learning-oriented by explaining your thought processes and asking questions about others’ thinking.

  • Experiment with challenging your own assumptions out loud. Normalise the process of challenging and changing assumptions as new information comes up.

  • Ask plenty of questions and applaud answers.

  • Reframe withholding as an act of disloyalty, which is what Netflix has done: We now say that it is disloyal to Netflix when you disagree with an idea and do not express disagreement. By withholding your opinion, you are implicitly choosing not to help the company.

Encourage processing

Many ideas and viewpoints are voiced during meetings. We need time to understand what’s been presented. During that time, we’re engaged in what’s called productive silence.

Productive silence is easily killed by off-topic, unimportant or tangential discussions. Care must therefore be taken to facilitate it:

  • Set explicit norms for active listening by designing a mutually agreed upon definition and identify the situations where processing is of utmost importance, e.g. client meetings, brainstorm sessions, or strategy alignment meetings.

  • Explicitly mention processing as a central feature of high performing teams. Include processing as a key competence whenever it makes sense.

  • Experiment with the left-hand column technique as a way of deepening understanding of the kinds of thinking people engage in while others are speaking.

At Amazon, processing is stimulated by starting each meeting with a 30-minute silence during which everyone reads a six-page memo and prepares for a thoughtful discussion.

Summary

  1. Create a safe environment in which participants feel free to voice their ideas and viewpoints without negative consequences

  2. Be mindful of the things you say

  3. Actively participate whilst maintaining an open attitude

  4. Encourage participants to process information by allowing (or even facilitating) productive silence

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