Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Equal Opportunity Advocate Asks "Dear EB"

Dear EB:

I have a coworker who's incredibly smart and talented, and really wants to contribute as much as she can to the rest of the team. A lot of the times, this means that she does the most talking in meetings and brainstorming sessions, effectively removing the chance for any other team members to contribute their ideas and have their voice heard. It's getting to the point where it's having an adverse effect on the growth of the team, and so I'm wondering, what is a good way to bring more balance to the contributions in order to allow other team members' voices to be heard?

The Equal Opportunity Advocate

Dear Equal Opportunity Advocate:

Your question certainly brings back similar times for me working with peers—feeling “caught” in situations where others’ or my ideas are being blocked from being aired. It does not matter on over-contributors’ intents—their actions are blocking good, great, or perhaps the best ideas from being shared and therefore positively affecting results.

First, I commend you on wanting to take action. Too many times, I have witnessed the same behavior on intact work teams. Instead of taking positive action, the team members attempt to fix or control the over-contributor and then the team members become even more frustrated that their efforts did not magically work.

In situations like this one, you can choose between two separate approaches or instead opt for a combination approach. The best approach will depend on the people you work with and the dynamics of the group. The direct approach would be to address the over-contributor in a personal, one-to-one manner. In a different team dynamic, it may be best to reach out to a team leader in a private meeting where you can voice your concern and propose a resolution.

When I experience counter-productive situations with peers, I try to remember something one of my past leaders told me: assume positive intent. At times the pace of work and stress can be high and I even fail by acting hastily before taking some time for reflection—we are human. I then remember to take a pause and try to reflect on why the person chose to act the way that I observed. Speaking from my experience, it typically comes down to the fact that others have allowed the behavior to go on for so long in the work environment combined with the person, in your case the over-contributor, receiving continuous, positive reinforcement.

Following the first path, consider how the over-contributor tends to receive feedback based on past situations. Does she tend to be open to listening and taking in feedback? Does she tend to become defensive? How would she react if you approached her one-to-one outside of earshot of others in your work environment and you asked, “I see we have an upcoming brainstorming meeting—do you have a minute to chat?”

If you take the lead to approach her, then what has worked for me is to frame the conversation from your experience and impact on you, and possibly others. For example, in a very calm, relaxed facial, and open body posture, you might say, “I know that we are going to brainstorm new system processes changes. During past brainstorming sessions, I notice that based on your knowledge and past experience, you always have much to offer. However, at times, I can see that not all the other voices, mine included, are being heard, which then influences our teaming and ownership on the new changes. I was wondering how we could resolve this so that while you get your ideas out, we all also get the opportunity to express at least one of our ideas aloud for discussion. What are your thoughts?”

Be prepared—as she may challenge you for examples. Be factual by briefly stating a few actual observations you experienced from a most recent meeting. For example, “When we were discussing a resolution on addressing the data results from last quarter, you were the first to speak and shared your full list of eight ideas before anyone else had an opportunity to share. When it came time for others to chime in, nothing was shared.” Direct the conversation towards working on a solution where everyone knows they'll have the opportunity to share.

If you decide not to take the direct path and/or you do and it does not work the way you intended, you should directly address your team leader. In fact, your team leader should be stepping up to create the environment where all ideas are brought out “on the table” from everyone—even those who typically might be reticent to speaking up at meetings—as you never know who might offer an even better approach or an enhancement.

From what I can infer from your question, and my experience, teams tend to forget that they need expectations set for all meeting types—they assume that everyone knows. I would approach your leader in the same fashion I shared for the over-contributor, for example, you could say, “Before we are in the scheduled brainstorming meeting—do you have a minute to chat?” During your meeting, you can open the discussion with, “I would like to suggest that we establish team expectations for all brainstorming meeting sessions. For example, we have 11 on our team. We should be told that we must come prepared with at least one—the more the better—idea to address the new system processes changes. At the meeting, everyone needs to share their one idea before we go back around to the first person. Preferably, we should start discussing either randomly or with the person who tends to be quiet. We never know who might have a part of the solution. What are your thoughts?”

At this point, your leader might open the discussion to possibly accept what you are suggesting as well as ask you what actually transpired to nudge you to make this suggestion. Again, focus on your positive intent—wanting to build team camaraderie and explore all potential solutions. Do not use the discussion to throw the over-contributor “under-the-bus”. Instead, focus on facts of your experience from past meetings, such as, “Well, in the last meeting on addressing the data results from last quarter, Karen began and ended the discussion by sharing eight ideas before anyone else had an opportunity to share—and therefore be heard and validated.”

As previously stated, addressing behavioral situations that impact productivity on a peer-to-peer basis can be very challenging. However, you owe it to yourself to help create a productive team environment—plus you are now practicing an important skill required for all effective team leaders. Your best direction between which path to take depends on the affability of the over-contributor and the level of comfort you have in your work relationship with her.

Good luck to you and your team as you move forward!

Robert Gasdick
Training Delivery & Design Consultant

About Our Dear EB Author: Robert Gasdick has 26 years of progressive experience in the banking-related industry and human resources. As an external consultant/trainer he facilitates courses in areas such as leadership, management, communication, conflict resolution, change, presentation skills and business writing.

Escoe Bliss is proud to count Mr. Gasdick among our team of talented consultants. Please contact us to learn how we can provide your company with customized training solutions.

Ask Dear EB: Are you experiencing a challenging situation at your workplace and you'd like advice from Dear EB? Just send us an email and an expert Escoe Bliss consultant will respond with helpful and applicable advice via Blogging With Bliss and our next issue of The Insider. We pledge to keep all information anonymous and confidential.

1 comment:

  1. Robert gives an excellent answer here to a common problem of team environments. As an operations manager during the "boom before the bust" of the mortgage industry, I can say, it is important to make sure your most productive team members feel valued. Making sure everyone has an opportunity to contribute is crucial to the team's success.