It’s 1:00 on a Thursday afternoon and the leadership team has been beaten up all week. Team utilization has been maxed out. It was warm outside and after lunch, energy levels were low. Disengagement was high. The global engineering firm, Vantasner, was founded by Harry Vantasner and had experienced enormous growth in its short 10-years of being in business. What started out as a 4-person boutique firm, quickly turned into an up and coming player in the world of 3D engineering. Scaling to the heights of 500 employees, the company’s family feel had changed drastically to one of corporate bureaucracy.
The leadership team had brought in several professional managers to help lead the firm but had also seen some of the early employees start to leave the company. With the growing attrition, the company had to turn down the last 4 awarded bids because they lacked the workforce to fulfill the contracts. Jeff DeFault joined the company last year leading the Engineering Sales Division. His verbose opinions known throughout the company.
As the meeting began with the asking of an open question to the entire leadership team on what was happening, Jeff proceeded to give a 35-minute diatribe on his thoughts. Completely dominating the conversation, interrupting others as they spoke, the meeting was cut short at the 45-minute point when the entire room looked even more drained. An hour after the meeting, Sue from Marketing stopped by Harry’s office to give her thoughts on why the founding employees were leaving.
This scenario plays out daily in organizations across the globe where one individual dominates the conversation making it impossible to leverage the talents of the entire team. Group work can be painful but pays off when dealing with complex problems. This leads us to buy and develop a team of experts so that we can leverage all this domain knowledge. The biggest threat to this process working is the conversation hogs that steal time and insights away from others. They can be bullies that interrupt others to establish their positioning, status, and dominance but they can also be overly excited and just have a desire to just be heard. In either case, though, it is the goal of the leader to reign in the conversation hogs in and to facilitate innovation amongst the entire team.
At times there may not even be a bully present, but there is a crowd of nonparticipators. This can be derived from those that have a natural shyness about speaking in a group setting, they could also have a legitimate fear about expressing their thoughts in public. This is the call for leadership focus to help pull that information out of them. It begins with creating and enforcing an environment that makes the people comfortable in being vulnerable to the group. The secondary approach is designing the event or experience where there are specific activities that will bring people out of their shell and participate.
The third problem participant is the disengaged. They may have little faith that their opinions will be heard or that any actions will come to fruition. They may have been assigned to participate versus having a true desire to be there. There are also those participants that can’t stop their day to day activities and cannot give their full and undivided attention. In essence, these people are stealing real estate and it’s the role of the leader to get rid of them as they will do more damage to the process than minimal help.
While there is no single action that can be taken to ensure full team engagement, there are actions that can greatly increase the odds of success. Establishing a shared vision with the team at the beginning helps lay the foundation and gives the group a common purpose. Peter Senge wrote extensively on the five types of visions beginning will “telling” the team what their vision is. In this approach, the team has little input and buy-in to the overall purpose. While not a preferred method, it does clarify the direction of the team in a short amount of time.
The second vision is the “selling” of the team’s direction. This model does not include team input as well but attempts to come across as it is a choice for the team and that there is an attempt to achieve buy-in. This again is a controlled model for a situation where there is only one possible vision to follow but there is also a desire to explain that to the team so that they will actively pursue it.
The third approach is “testing” out a vision by presenting several options to see what excites the team. While this engages the team more and gives the appearance of self-efficacy, it is another controlled model where the future path is dictated beforehand. Closely aligned with the fourth approach of “consulting” with the team on a vision. The consulting model asks the team to determine which vision is the best path for the organization. Using analysis this vision turns into a problem analysis for the team.
The most team engaging vision is the fifth approach, “co-creation.” This model consists of the entire team starting on a level playing ground. The team would then build from the ground level the direction of the organization. While this is a time-consuming methodology that does take strenuous effort to create it also puts the team in a position to struggle and create together which forms a bond amongst the team and achieves initial team engagement.
Beyond a vision, there are other fundamental elements to put in place to help engage the entire team. Facilitators learned early that a group cannot just jump right into the problem at hand. They must build a relationship. These are the uncomfortable icebreaker sessions that happen during events that force people to talk. Most are just quick introductions. However, great icebreakers expose everyone to the group and start a little bonding amongst the team.
Moving into the next stage is having the team establish ground rules or behaviors in how they want to treat each other. This is an awkward activity that takes time, but it gives an insight into what people want to accomplish and how they like to work. To many, this will seem like an elementary conversation on how to act like a professional, but if you ask “what your pet peeves in the office are,” the team will have a depth of examples to pull from. The overarching key here is that the leader will want to focus on building the environment that people know what to expect and can be comfortable in expressing their thoughts.
A third approach to gaining the full utilization of the team is the location. Some collocated or travel teams complete their meetings in a face to face setting. Other teams are a blending of remote and co-located without an ability to travel forcing the meeting online. This is becoming a more common issue of having brainstorming and problem-solving sessions. Having a blend of co-located participants and virtual participants using a conference line. The difficulty in this scenario is that those virtually lose too much context. This hinders their ability to engage or they get ignored.
The goal is to achieve inclusion when there is a mixed team of remote and present. Place the efforts in designing a great virtual session instead of a mixed live and virtual event. More advanced event design is creating an asynchronous event. This has shown in studies to provide more productive results in idea creation because it is a delayed process. That gives time to think and can be anonymous which are two factors that enhance the creative process.
The old model of work was for the leader to provide creative insight. The team followed their lead helping where they could. Now once the team is set the role of the leader is to manage the process. To enable the talent for the entire team. The leader will guide the team through the logistics and the process of their collaboration. The overall goal is to maximize the time and attention of the talent.
Meetings are not taught in Business School. People tend to follow the poor examples set before them of holding meetings that discuss status instead of ideas. The leader’s role is to set the table by posing questions to open discussion and not close it out. By asking the questions of “what is happening,” “why is this happening,” and “how could we solve this?” These all put the participants into a different thought process of imagining possibilities. These questions designed to probe keep the full team engaged and equally participating.
In the 1960’s Advertising Executive Alex Osborn coined the term brainstorming. This was his conception of a group of people thinking up as many ideas as possible. The belief that a great idea would be amongst the mass of ideas. This became an effective activity and popular lexicon in the decades that followed. The key to the concept centered around four teaming ideas. The first being to share whatever comes to mind. The second is to build on other’s ideas. Third, avoid criticism at all costs. Fourth, strive for the quantity, not quality.
Leigh Thompson led a research team in 2017 to determine if people could be primed for better brainstorming. Testing people’s creativity if they told an embarrassing story before brainstorming. Following they tested people that had to talk about a time they were proud of. They found that those that told an embarrassing story were significantly more creative. Those that had built social capital by discussing their achievements, loss aversion restrained their thoughts. Those that had told an embarrassing story had no social capital. Expressing thoughts without risk generated greater ideas.
One example from a facilitator was to ask the question during an icebreaker session. “What’s the most trouble you got into before High School?” This would make the participants more vulnerable to the group showing everyone that none in the team was perfect. This would put everyone on an even playing field with equal footing amongst their peers. The facilitator would also keep the story in adolescence to eliminate judgment from the group. There is more social forgiveness for mistakes made as a child.
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