Great leaders build engagement. Engagement in meetings requires contribution and involvement. Many leaders I work with complain of a lack of engagement from their team members during meetings, despite their best efforts. This is not always about their leadership or their teams’ engagement; often there are other factors at play.
In answer to this common request, there are 3 issues to explore here:
- psychological safety
- thinking preferences
- power dynamics
Let’s look at each in turn.
Often, if the group is over 8 or 9, and certainly when it’s pushing numbers of 20 and above, people can be intimidated by the sheer amount of eyes in the room. Speaking in public is regularly cited as people’s number one fear, so it’s no wonder that holding the attention of what feels like a crowd is daunting, and thus people don't feel comfortable to contribute. They don't want to look foolish or be open to ridicule.
TIP: Ask a question and have them discuss the answer in small groups first – in pairs or small clusters. This way they get to rehearse their answer in a smaller, safer environment and test their response on the small group first. The group then validates the ideas (or not) and makes it easier for the idea to be shared with the main group afterwards.
People who love thinking on their feet often have an advantage in meetings. They appear engaged, knowledgeable and confident to contribute, merely by the act of speaking up. On the other hand, people who like to reflect on the questions, ponder their own views, and process their perspectives for some time before making their contribution, can feel pressured to perform and feel rushed to contribute poorly formed ideas. This holds them back from contributing and can appear as a lack of engagement, rather than a thinking preference.
TIP: Send the questions out before the meeting, to help the reflective thinkers gather their thoughts in advance. You’ll be surprised how much more they are willing to contribute when they have had some preparation time.
If there are political undercurrents at play in the group, it may not be a wise career move for people to speak up or share ideas, particularly if it’s not the popular opinion, or goes against a strong senior influencer in the group. This can be hard to deal with, as the very ideas you need, in order to shift this behaviour, are buried under the dynamics of the power players.
TIP: Meet before the meeting to get ideas from individuals in a safe space, and agree to share them as themes (without identifying the individual contributors). This way the important ideas can be voiced without identification, and people can engage with them as a collective. This can ensure people get to speak their mind without fear of reprisal from others in the group, and all appropriate voices and opinions can be legitimised.
It’s not always easy to get people contributing in groups. The more tools you have in your toolkit, the greater the likelihood you’ll find a way that works, so keep trying and let me know how you go!
Till next time.
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