Like many well-intentioned executives and managers I’ve met, it’s likely that you genuinely want to engage your team members; you want them to feel like active participants in the decision-making process. You know that you don’t have all of the answers.
And when a problem arises that needs to be solved, you gather your team together.
“So, how are we going to solve this? I want to hear your ideas.”
Then, someone cautiously speaks up, offering a suggestion. It’s not a bad idea, but it’s certainly not particularly creative or original.
A few more team members chime in, providing slight variations on the first person’s ideas. But the ideas are hardly flowing freely. And they’re staring at the table, out the window or up where the wall meets the ceiling—anywhere but at you.
You’re left wondering, “What’s going on? Why aren’t they speaking up? Maybe they just don’t have any other ideas? That can’t be the case … or at least I hope it’s not.”
The truth is that the problem might be you.
It’s not necessarily that people don’t like you or that they don’t believe that you want to hear what they have to say. But your presence—the simple fact that you’re in the room—could be stifling the free flow of ideas that you were trying to inspire.
That’s because in their minds, they may be self-censoring their ideas to some degree because they want to impress you. You’re the boss, so they don’t want to run the risk of saying something that could sound stupid. So they stick to the safe ideas; they avoid the vulnerability of creative discussion.
Research suggests this can occur particularly if the power difference between you and the team members is substantial. That differential can make your presence a dominant feature of the environment, which can limit conversation and reduce team performance.
When you’re the boss, it’s hard to know precisely whether this phenomenon is occurring. But there is something you can try.
Simply leave the room.
Instead of staying around and listening to your team’s ideas as they emerge, provide some context for the problem and why it needs to be solved. Then, tell your team that you’d like for them to discuss and provides some potential solutions. Let them know you’ll check back in after a while—maybe 30, 45, or 60 minutes—to see how things are going. If they’re ready sooner, tell them to let you know.
And then, get up and walk out.
In addition to removing yourself as the potential barrier to conversation, you might also be encouraging productive cross-functional dialogue within your team. You may also be providing the groundwork for more ownership and buy-in—instead of the solution being your idea, it’s more their idea.
Ideally, of course, our teams have such a high level of trust and psychological safety that none of this is necessary. But as the boss, you must realize that what you say and what you do—and even your very presence in a room—have an influence on how other people behave.
So the next time you find yourself thinking that your team is having an unproductive conversation, remember that the problem might not be them.
It might be you.
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