Why You Want Your Senior Team to Do More Talking

By: Gene Morrissy

Lately I have been getting more inquiries about senior-team environments. Executives are concerned about groupthink, about making decisions too quickly (or too slowly), about an inability to say what is on their mind, and about subsets of the team taking up too much oxygen in the room driving their own agendas. Recently, Gordon Tredgold, a business speaker and author, wrote an article for Inc. magazine about important questions to ask in teams in order to maximize the team’s impact and contributions to the business. His top five questions:

  • Is there a simpler solution or simpler way of doing this?
  • Can you explain the solution to me?
  • What should we stop doing?
  • Is this urgent or important?
  • Do you think our approach will be successful?

I cannot argue against the importance of even one of these—but that begs the question: Why are they not asked more often? There seem to be two major things that prevent it: individual personality traits among team members and team climate.

Individual personality traits lead people to behave in certain ways on teams. These include how outgoing they are, whether they have a curious and questioning mind, how willing they are to assert a point of view that is different from that of the boss, and even how confident they are.

Beyond individual differences, the climate of the team has a tremendous impact. Just notice the short amount of time it takes a new team member to figure out how things work. In fact, just as each of us—no matter our birth order—is born into a “new” family, each time a new member joins a team, that team becomes new! Many people assume that things will continue to play out as they always have, but that is hardly ever true. Great teams will spend time revisiting how they want the team to operate. For example, Google, Inc. identified several areas in its own teams that made for better-functioning and more-effective teams. (Big reveal: intelligence of team members wasn’t toward the top of the list.)

I suggest that teams revisit and discuss several questions every time someone enters the fold. The questions fall into three areas: psychological safety, team norms, and airtime:

  • Can issues and concerns be discussed without fear? If people are shot down for raising concerns or challenging ideas, they will quickly stop offering constructive criticism and new approaches.
  • Has the team agreed to a set of operating principles or norms? Who is responsible for upholding those norms? In truly high-performing teams, what is acceptable and unacceptable has been fully vetted, and everyone is responsible for upholding the standard.
  • Does the group share airtime evenly so the thinkers as well as the talkers have their ideas heard and counted equally? Although everyone on the team should endeavor to make sure that people are weighing in and are heard, a good team leader will ensure an equal distribution of talk time over the course of an extended staff meeting. This does not mean everyone has to weigh in on every subject, but over the long haul, airtime should even out. Once again, it should be everyone’s responsibility to ensure that people weighing in on topics are heard.

Not surprisingly, these discussions are harder to have than you might think. Nonetheless, research consistently shows that teams using these questions as guidelines are more effective, have greater trust in each other, and are more willing to work through differences. I suspect the five questions at the start of this piece are asked and answered more honestly on teams that act in a way consistent with the three areas I have mentioned. So, take a chance and raise the bar for your team. Think of how much more you could accomplish!

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