I’ve stopped talking so much in meetings. More precisely, I’ve stopped talking first in meetings.
A while back, I was in a meeting led by another manager and I noticed something that has stuck with me ever since. This manager had a very strong presence and personality, and he was very quick to inject his opinions into a multi-person conversation. So much so, the entire dynamic of the meeting was altered by his presence. Other meeting participants seemed reluctant to contribute. Any subsequent ideas shared seemed to be based on his initial concept. It all seemed very constrained.
On the surface, a strong, vocal manager appears to demonstrate classic (stereotypical?) leadership qualities. Clear, direct, confident, intelligent. But what I observed in this meeting indicated the exact opposite to me.
Since this meeting, I’ve been extremely aware of leadership behaviors in meetings. I watch other managers. I watch myself. I observe the behaviors and reactions of meeting participants and contributors. And, I’ve ultimately concluded that most managers (myself included) are talking way too much and way too early in meetings.
In this week’s blog, we’re going to look at 3 specific leadership advantages to speaking less and waiting longer before talking in meetings.
Some of the qualities that make for good leaders – confidence, decisiveness, passion, intelligence – can have undesired consequences if you’re not careful. The very attributes responsible for the leadership opportunities you’ve been awarded can backfire if left unchecked. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?
You’re in a 6-person meeting with several different personality types represented. The type “A” leader dominates the conversation and leaves the meeting feeling it went well. Everyone else leaves quiet and confused.
You’re a meeting participant and a senior executive expresses a very strong opinion early in the conversation. Others either sit quietly or jump on board with her idea trying to seem agreeable and avoid embarrassment or conflict.
You’re a leader in a meeting and you kick it off by sharing your perspective on the issue and then ask for other ideas. You ask people to challenge you. Nobody does. The team ends up aligning to your original idea with very little debate or discussion.
Two dominant personalities are in a 6-person meeting. After some initial dialogue, the entire discussion gravitates to their ideas only. In the end, the group only compares those two loudly voiced ideas and any others are forgotten about or never heard in the first place.
We’ve all been in meetings like this. I would argue they are the norm. As leaders, we want to offer direction and clarity. As contributors, we want to have our ideas heard and be viewed as strong and assertive. But what impact is that having? Are we actually leading or are we just acting like we think a leader should?
Here are 3 reasons I think leaders should speak less and wait longer to speak in meetings:
1. Inspire Creativity
When a leader speaks early and decisively in a meeting, he or she artificially constrains creativity. Put yourself in the shoes of the other meeting participants for a moment. A strong leader or manager makes a decisive argument at the beginning of the meeting and then asks for other ideas. This sets artificial constraints for everyone else. Whether you realize it or not you’ve set mental boundaries for the types of ideas now likely to be brought forward.
For example, the problem set out for a meeting is to close a gap in sales. The leader starts off with a strong idea about a new type of marketing campaign. Then he asks for other ideas from the group. The tendency now will be to build on the first idea or to suggest other ideas for marketing campaigns. Without knowing it, the leader has artificially constrained all the thinking and dialogue. What if a marketing campaign wasn’t the only way to close the sales gap? What if there are entire other lines of thinking? You’ve lost those now.
When a leader speaks assertively and early in a conversation, the other participants are more likely to align to that idea or build upon that idea. To insert a fundamentally different idea feels combative. It feels risky. You’ve inadvertently created a situation where only the strongest participants will have the courage to counter your thinking. You’ve limited creativity.
My advice to managers is to start meetings by setting the most basic context e.g. here is the problem we’re trying to solve. Then, whether you have a great idea or not, start by soliciting ideas from the group before giving an opinion. You’ll free the team up to be creative and you’ll probably end up discovering your ideas weren’t as good as you thought they were.
2. Activate the Introverts
Most meetings are dominated by extroverts. This is not optimal because they don’t hold a monopoly on good ideas. When you start too strong in meetings, by inserting your opinions and taking strong positions on issues, you make it harder for anyone other than type “A” personalities to participate. This is a flawed strategy that reduces the number of potential ideas in any meeting you’re in.
The best managers actively solicit ideas. They pull them out of the more introverted among us. They are committed to creating an environment that feels comfortable to share ideas and opinions. Too many managers allow the loudest voices to dominate meetings which leads to suboptimal results and engagement.
My advice to managers is to start by soliciting ideas from the quieter members of your team. As an introvert, I can say I’m much more comfortable answering questions or responding to a request to share my idea than interjecting it spontaneously into a heated debate. The truth is, the extroverts will get their ideas heard one way or the other. You don’t have to worry about them. Start by proactively engaging the less vocal members of the team first and then let the others participate.
3. Reap the Benefits of Information
In a poker game, there is a huge advantage to playing your hand last. It’s called positional advantage. You have the benefit of seeing what everyone else does before you have to do anything. That information gives you a better chance to win. The exactly same principle holds true in meetings and in negotiations. There is a major advantage to waiting before acting.
When I’m in an important meeting, I’ll often ask for opinions of the group before sharing anything. That way I can learn about their perspectives and positions and tailor my points based on what I’ve heard. I have time to refine my argument, build counter arguments or decide to support one of the ideas that has already been presented.
Some managers feel like they need to speak early and loud so nobody beats them to the punch. They can’t stand the thought of another person stealing their idea. The meeting degrades into a bunch of loud voices all competing for time. I think this strategy is flawed. I’d much rather listen and then share my thoughts after I’ve benefitted from everyone else’s perspective. I can show leadership by combining pieces of other ideas. I can show judgement by identifying gaps in early ideas. I can hit a homerun by learning from the reactions to early ideas and then offering my own optimized idea.
My advice to managers is to wait a little longer before injecting your opinions into meetings. Not just to inspire creativity and activate less vocal participants, but also to benefit from the informational advantage that comes from acting later.
Many leaders operate with only one gear. They’re aggressive. They’re vocal. For years, I’ve observed this type “A” tendency in myself and other managers around me. I think it’s a strategic flaw and I’ve made a point of controlling it. There are times when acting aggressively is warranted but I see many advantages to speaking less and speaking later. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Share them in the comments or send me an email about it.