Tag Archives: productivity

Why don’t team members speak up

Are you concerned that team members do not speak up during discussions?

As individuals, they are bright, forthcoming and have plenty to contribute.  At the coffee machine, discussion is animated and flows swiftly.  Yet, when you all troop into a meeting, the flow of dialogue immediately dries up and energy evaporates.

Then, as soon as the individuals get out of the door, they are reanimated and have plenty to say.  Why has lethargy supplanted vitality?  Here are four possible reasons:

  • the boss
  • perception of the expertise of others
  • lack of confidence
  • premature conformity.

1.  The boss

It feels natural for the boss to maintain their role of boss in a meeting – they call the meeting, chair it, sit in a prominent position, make decisions.

But, a boss-centric meeting encourages team members to think: “If you are the boss, then you must know all the answers.  Or, you think you do.  The easiest and safest thing is for me to keep quiet.  You decide, I will follow.”

The boss gets no feedback so cannot update their perception of the world.  Discussion is limited and no new ideas are floated.

This is a self-reinforcing situation, but you can break into the circle.

First, ensure that everyone understands what the meeting and each agenda item is aiming to achieve.  Second, have different people introduce and lead individual agenda items.  Third, instil an understanding that everyone is responsible for the success of the meeting – you can do this by going round the table to seek contributions.  .

And fourth, find an opportunity to give your boss some feedback.

2.  Perception of the expertise of others

The position of the expert, or the more experienced person, is a variation of the boss situation.

If people perceive one of the group to be an expert, they tend not to question that person’s expertise.  This means the expert gets a clear run and their assertions go unchallenged.

Of course there is a role for people’s expertise and experience – we want to know what they think.  But their contributions need to be evaluated as to their practicality, how they can effectively be applied, the same as any other idea.

An expert may be an expert in a narrow field and be less capable of seeing how their expertise will work in practice – this is where the other team members come in.

If contributions are rated by the experience of the contributor then it could be like driving a car by looking in the rear view mirror.  The same problems recur and basic issues are not resolved.  Again, discussion is limited and no new ideas are floated.

To overcome this, encourage the belief that everyone has something to contribute.  Second, evaluate ideas on merit.  Third, challenge defensive behaviour such as “We already tried that and didn’t work.”

3.  Lack of confidence

Newer members of a team are prepared to join vigorously in the dialogue over coffee but often less willing to contribute in front of the whole team.

But, when do new team members feel comfortable about contributing to a more formal meeting – after one week, one month, one year?  If they are not immediately encouraged to speak up, this sends out signals.  Signals such as:  new ideas are not welcome; contributions are evaluated on status, length of service and number of scars.

However, since the old hands have been around for longer, they are more likely to see issues in the same way as they always have done.

One way to manage this is actively to seek out the contribution of newcomers: “Is this something you experienced at your previous job?”  Another tactic is to support those who struggle to make an impact, give them airtime.

4.  Premature conformity

When the team makes a decision, we would like all the team members to agree to that decision.  Successful follow through of actions is increased if everyone is committed.

However, if the group enforces unanimity too early in a discussion, individuals will limit their feedback and withhold different ideas.  People will be more concerned with conformity than with digging into issues.  Not only will they keep quiet during discussion, but they will also have limited commitment afterwards.

As a result, criticism takes place after the decision has been made, rather than before.  The Bay of Pigs may have taken place over fifty years ago, but it still stands as one of the most famous examples of group think.

To avoid group think, make it clear at each stage of discussion what contributions are welcome:   creative ideas, evaluation or execution.


So, if you want your meetings to be dynamic and people to commit to the outcomes, you have to encourage a culture in which everybody’s contribution is welcomed and the issues are aired openly around the table.

Organisational bowling

Have you noticed how many organisations undertake a very strange form of ten-pin bowling? Organisational ten-pin bowling shares many elements of the conventional game. For example, you and your colleagues are arranged in teams and are expected to be loyal and energetic. You are allocated a lane in which to perform. You are given targets (the pins) and resources (a ball) with which to hit those targets.

But organisational bowling differs in two major respects from the conventional game.

The blanket

First of all, there is a blanket draped over the lane, about halfway down. This means you can’t see what you are aiming at.

Now, you are pretty sure that ten-pin bowling involves ten pins because everybody says so. It’s in the rules, there are numerous books on the subject. More than that, the nice person who interviewed you for the job promised that everything possible would be done to help you be a very successful bowler. That, you assumed, included a clear view of your target.

So your guess is that behind that blanket there are indeed a number of pins that you have to knock over. And you also know that knocking over as many as possible is pretty much the aim of this activity.

The blanket perplexes you at first. But this seems to be the version of the game played around here. So don’t rock the boat, keep your head down and just get on with bowling.

You chuck your first ball down. It goes with some velocity and you watch it with satisfaction and anticipation as it speeds on its way straight down the middle. Then, it disappears behind the blanket. You stand there. You see nothing and hear nothing. So you pick up another ball and bowl that one. Your manager appears. “What the hell are you doing? Pull your finger out! You’ve got to do better than that. The other side are miles ahead.”

Something appears to be wrong, though you are not sure exactly what. You bowl a few more balls. You try pretty hard. You experiment. You chuck a few with more force and some of these end up in the gutter. You try less force and concentrate on accuracy, hoping the ball has enough momentum to cause damage somewhere down there at the end of your lane.

Your manager reappears. Oh dear, could this be more bad news? “Terrific, terrific,” he says. “Keep it up, well done. Must fly – got to go to another lane.”


The second difference between organisational ten-pin bowling and the conventional game is teamwork. You know you are in a team because you’ve been told so – the person who interviewed you for the job was at their most earnest when they talked about teamwork. But, there is scant evidence to suggest that you are in a team.

You spot people going to the bar to get a drink or a sandwich. Maybe they are in the same team as you. It would be nice to find out a bit more about these other people. Do they have a blanket too? Do they prefer light balls or heavy balls? What shoes do they wear? What scores have they been getting?

But no, nobody appears to view gathering in the refreshment area as a productive activity. The gatherings are subdued and fleeting. As soon as three or four people congregate, a manager appears and people melt away. Obviously these are all dedicated bowlers. Serious bowling is going on around here somewhere.

You return to your lane with more questions. How am I doing? How is the team doing? Does anyone keep the score? Could the others share their expertise to help me do better? And do managers spend more time checking who goes to the bar and the loo than….. well, I don’t know. What do managers do?

So there you are – organisational ten-pin bowling. A curious activity with no objectives, no feedback on individual performance, no sharing of ideas but high on strong management control.