When making decisions as a team, do you have a few dominant voices and others that shrink back?
Though you are hoping for collective genius, it may turn out that your team suffers from giving in to the squeakiest wheel. In other words, it isn’t so much that the decision-making process is faulty – it’s more often the way the team interacts in order to reach answers.
What do you do?
That’s what Johann asked me.
“Here’s how it goes. First, a situation or challenge is presented. And then I open it up for brainstorming. Jack will always have an opinion, and Daniel will want to argue for arguing’s sake. The other four have learned to sit back and just let it happen. And I’m tired of refereeing. How can I help the team work together better to make decisions?”
“Johann, you are missing two-thirds of your team brainpower. That’s significant.”
“Yes, and I’ve tried asking the others what they think, to give them space to talk. But they just don’t want to enter into the fracas.”
“I don’t blame them,” I said. “Nobody wants to jump in to talk when it doesn’t feel safe.”
“What do you mean, ‘safe’?”
“Well, my guess is when the others have tried to speak up that they are cut down, their opinion is discounted or diminished, or they get the feeling it wasn’t worth speaking up. Am I right?”
“Yes, I guess so,” Johann said. “So how do you make it feel safe to participate?”
I shared 3 steps with Johann to begin creating psychological safety for the team.
Psychological safety allows team members to take risks, voice innovative ideas, and speaking one’s mind. When it is absent, team members begin to shut down and go along with the dominant voices in the group to feel safe. It doesn’t feel good to stick one’s neck out with a possible new concept or solution, only to feel shot down by someone else in the group.
What happens over the long term is that those team members whose voices are overshadowed by the more dominant voices simply default to the prevailing opinion. In other words, they take the easy road out by agreeing with the majority. In this way, they avoid conflict or feeling shot down. The problem is that those team members who give in may not really endorse the decisions made. They will go along with it, but their engagement will be low.
And when engagement is low, results are sub-par. You’ve lost the power of the potential talent on the team.
What to do?
1. Begin with a team charter around decision-making. Have the team list out what they need in order to give their very best to the process. Talk about what gets in the way, what prevents them from participating or bringing their top ideas to the table. Then, turn this around to a shared agreement about how you will operate going forward. If no one speaks up about the quieter voices, provide your own feedback on how you have observed this.
2. Shake up the process. For example, if presenting a particular problem to be solved, make the rule that there will be a question period before opinions are proffered. Make a game of it. Only questions for 10 minutes to get the information they need, and then open the floor for recommendations. This question period will allow those who have been reticent to participate to jump in. You might even have people write down their recommendations, hand them to you, and have you read them.
3. Break up old dynamics. Appoint a devil’s advocate (or two!) and charge them with countering the group’s consensus. Invite them to challenge and to ask the difficult questions. Research has shown that challenging in this way can improve group outcomes and the quality of the decisions made. Appoint a time-keeper and limit the team members to 1 minute apiece as they go around “popcorn style” to provide their input. Make a rule that the first person to speak after someone has providing an idea must say something positive about the idea. You are shifting dynamics to allow participation in safe space.
Johann agreed to try out developing the team charter and reported later that this revealed deep feelings of which he had not been aware. The team was able to talk frankly and to decide how they wanted to do differently going forward. Further, when he integrated more of the ideas into the decision-making process, it was enough to help the team move out of a limiting dynamic and into a healthier, more inclusive one.
How would you rate your team’s ability to make decisions together? Although I can’t promise that this approach will help your team to make better decisions, I can tell you with confidence that when you improve the interaction between your team members during the process, that it will boost your chances of a better outcome.
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Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.