How to get staff to speak up at meetings
Advice on how to promote honest feedback from employees in public settings
Bob Frisch, Cary Greene
Most bosses assume that when they ask for feedback, people will offer their thoughts candidly. But that often doesn’t happen, especially in public settings and high-stakes situations
The meeting seemed to go smoothly. Bill, an executive vice-president of sales, had gathered his leadership team and outlined a plan to reconfigure the sales organisation. When he asked if anyone had concerns, no one raised significant issues. Bill thought everyone was on board.
But later that week, one of the attendees said: “Do you remember when you were talking about reconfiguring the sales organisation? I’m not sure we’ve got Latin America quite right.” Similar scenes played out with other direct reports and more junior employees. The plan was now unravelling. What happened?
Most bosses assume that when they ask for feedback, people will offer their thoughts candidly. But that often doesn’t happen, especially in public settings and high-stakes situations.
Why do people hold back? In some cases, junior team members may hesitate to disagree. In others, the most powerful team members may know they can approach the decision-makers afterwards or launch a covert campaign to sway support.
How can you prevent this? Set one key ground rule: “Silence denotes agreement.”
Explain that if people don’t say anything, they’re voting “yes”. You must then commit to enforcing the rule. If someone approaches you after a meeting, the response should be: “You should have spoken up at the meeting.”
Sometimes the establishment and reinforcement of the rule is enough to elicit opinions. But if you sense that some participants still find it difficult to express themselves, consider the following tactics:
– Take anonymous polls: Ask people to write questions or concerns on index cards, put them in a bowl and read them aloud without using names. Better yet, use a polling app or device to query meeting participants and see their answers in real time.
– Map the topic: Put poster-size charts of the components of an idea or plan on a wall. Ask participants to place yellow dots on the charts where they have a question, and red dots where they have a significant concern. Use the dots to guide the conversation.
– Break up a big group: People are more likely to participate in small-group discussions. So divide people into teams to discuss challenges to the proposal. Appoint representatives to summarise the groups’ thoughts.
– Ask them to empathise: People are often more willing to speak on others’ behalf. So when you solicit opinions about what concerns their direct reports might have, it can open the floodgates of reaction. This allows those in the room to externalise criticism. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2016
Bob Frisch is the managing partner of the Strategic Offsites Group, a Boston-based consultancy. Cary Greene is a partner at the same consultancy.
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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