Speak softly. Speak Last.

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One of the common challenges to leaders is ensuring that everybody has a voice.

Think back to a group situation where a question was asked, and almost everybody in the room turned to look at you. This is one of those times where silence is golden. Perhaps more important is when you have input, or a strong opinion, and want to share it: likewise keep your mouth shut. Don’t worry, the silence won’t last long. Somebody will speak up. Congratulations. You’ve just enabled an opinion you might otherwise never have heard.

Foster this as a habit. And see if you can spot an opportunity to coach the practice into others – for example, if you notice that Jill is always the first one to jump in, consider inviting her to join you in silence until the discussion is underway.

Now that we’ve got the two loudest voices quietened down, maybe have a look around your team and identify the Mouse. Most teams have one, and it’s often a new or junior colleague. He or she will sit quietly in the meeting, nodding along, and seldom contribute unless asked a direct question. So ask a direct question. This needn’t be scary or difficult, and can be a great opportunity to be more inclusive:

  • Pierre, you’re quite new to the team and I wondered if you had a fresh perspective to offer on this? We’ve all been doing this so long we might not see the obvious.
  • Paula, how did your previous team approach problems like this? Are we missing something?

Other strategies you can use to ensure everyone has a voice include gamification, particularly effective in ceremonies like the Scrum Retro, for example:

  • Rather than the “what went well, what didn’t go well, blah blah blah” session, try the One Word Game:
    • Ask everybody to write down a single word describing their feelings about the Sprint
    • If you’ve never done this before, people will mutter and mumble – ask them to trust you
    • Every person writes ONE WORD on a Trello card, PostIt™️ Note, whatever, and puts it up on the board without saying anything
    • Ensure that every single person has done this
    • Invite the team to add other single words, on seperate cards/notes, until they’ve captured their thoughts
    • Here’s the sneaky bit: pick a word off the board, ask who wrote it, then ask them to explain it
    • Capture the narrative, move on to the next word
    • Once you’re gone through the board, you could now move back to the more traditional grouping things together, establishing common themes, etc.
    • Pat yourself on the back – you’ve just ensured everyone on the team has a voice, and you’ve done it in a playful, non-threatening manner.

Leaders who immediately seek to join conversations (or worse: own them) are unknowingly (I’ll be charitable and assume it’s unknowingly) imposing their will on the team. And they’re losing a tremendous amount of value when they do that. They may well be the most intelligent, most experienced person in the room, but they’re not omniscient, and they are (perhaps more than others) susceptible to being over-confident that they have all the answers.

Speak softly, speak last. You might learn something.