This is the second post in a three-part series based on a study about teams by Google. Researchers completed an intensive two-year study of more than 180 teams looking for the key characteristics of their high-performing teams. The New York Times article on the Google study is worth your time.

Two elements stood out:

1. Psychological safety—people felt safe to talk.

2. Broad participation—all team members have equal opportunity to contribute to the group conversation.

Click here to see our earlier discussion on psychological safety. Today let’s look at the second element uncovered in Google’s study of its high-performing teams: broad participation. When you think about what determines whether someone feels good about their experience of being on a team, here are the main factors:
•  People are treated with respect.
•  They feel included—a part of the group.
•  They feel fully expressed. They don’t leave a meeting with something to say or ask that they feel is important to the discussion.
•  They don’t feel anyone dominates the conversation or the group.
•  They know they add value to the conversation—that their views are part of the team’s discussions.

If you consider these factors, the link to broad participation is pretty clear and yet it tends to be widely missing. Why?

Broad participation is not a given. For a number of reasons, broad participation is not the norm for many groups. If you want your team to be high performing, that has to change. Each of the following elements is part of the dynamic that determines participation:

1.    How many people are in the group—more people means less time to speak and perhaps less comfort. A Fortune 500 CEO explained it simply: “I find that it’s easier to be myself in small groups.” I think that represents many of us.

2.    How many items are on the agenda—too many items leads to less discussion.

3.    Overuse of PowerPoint. PowerPoint is good for transfer of information—not so good for creating discussion. The presence of technology tends to put people into a passive mode.

4.    How much time is scheduled—many meetings run late, and if people have to choose between getting to their next meeting and asking an important question, they usually don’t ask their question.

5.    Whether everyone speaks the same language—people speaking a second language may decide not to express their ideas and questions because it take a bit longer to formulate their thoughts or they are concerned about their language skills.

6.    Whether the meeting is face-to-face or remote—more deliberate facilitation is required to get broad participation. It also takes more time, maybe as much as 20%, so agendas need to be planned accordingly.

7.    If some participants dominate by speaking more often or longer than they should. Divide the time of the meeting by the number of participants and you get a quick rule of thumb. Ten people in an hour long meeting means you get six minutes—more than that and you are risk of wearing out your welcome.

8.    Whether the desire to get broad participation has been made clear. Stating the intention up front to get everyone into the discussion is a powerful.

9.    Whether the conversation is actively managed—some people will not get into the conversation by fighting their way in, so it requires the leader and the group to notice who isn’t yet in the conversation and invite them.

10. Whether individual preferences keep people from contributing. We all have preferences when it comes to speaking based on both our individual personalities and our experience of each group in which we participate. If we had to identify the most prevalent mindset for people entering a meeting, it would be this: I don’t have to speak if I don’t feel like it.

Five key steps to a different dynamic

  1.  Design your meeting to ensure adequate time for people to participate.
  2. Let people know that broad participation is important not only to the quality of the discussion, but also to everyone’s experience of being on the team and to the team’s long-term viability. Set the expectation that the conversation will be managed to achieve broad participation.
  3. The person leading the meeting also needs to call on people strategically and gently (see this article from Fast Company). Relying on people to get into conversation on their own will not get you the results you want.
  4. Get participants involved. Everyone can be responsible for assuring full group participation in two ways. First, speak up when you have something to add or ask the question that will help focus the discussion. Second, encourage others to join the conversation. Neither one of these is a given.
  5. Make sure people feel heard. What happens when someone speaks? A common complaint is that people do not feel heard when they do speak in a group. Even worse, many people report that someone else makes the same point later and the group embraces it as if it were a new idea. This leads a person to doubt their speaking or their value in the group. Then they’ll make up some story to explain why no one seems to listen when they speak.
  6. Primarily it’s the responsibility of the person leading the meeting to make sure people feel heard. Three things will make a difference:
    •  ensuring that the group is paying attention when each person speaks
    •  allowing the person to complete their thoughts without interruption
    •  working with what they say—stating the value of their comments or making a connection to the group’s conversation

This is also a place where the rest of us as participants can add value—by doubling back to someone if we see that someone was interrupted, or their point wasn’t recognized, or the group moved on without dealing with their question or comment.

Bottom-line: In other words, in addition to working through the agenda, staying on track, and closing each conversation powerfully, the person leading the discussion is also responsible for each person’s experience of contributing to the conversation. Big job!

Not everyone has to speak in every conversation. Participation levels do not need to be perfectly balanced. The fundamental questions are:

  • Does everyone feel that they have every opportunity to express their views and ask their questions? You do not want anyone to leave with something left unsaid.
  • Does your group feel that participation levels are fair, inclusive, and take advantage of the wisdom of the group?

I think that you will find that paying attention and managing participation in your meetings will be warmly received, add value to your conversations, and increase people’s experience of being part of the group.

Thanks for reading.

You can learn more about personal effectiveness, conversation, relationships and meetings here.

Regards,

Paul

This post first appeared on LinkedIn October 11, 2016.

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