So I’m sitting at a large round table, talking with a team of eight senior-level leaders who work for a large corporation. These are smart, sophisticated people, who have both street cred as field operatives and many years’ experience leading various types and sizes of work groups. We’re discussing the best ways to gain team input.
Their comments start to flow:
- “We need to be more open-minded”
- “Our younger workforce expects to be part of the conversation”
- “How do we invite more participation?”
- “It’s a more informal process these days….”
Heads are nodding in agreement. The group is engaged, building on each other’s responses.
The Challenge of Silence at Meetings
Then, one person is brave enough to be the Devil’s Advocate:“OK, so let’s say that I do all of these things. I’m asking for input, I’m trying to get them involved. Which, by the way, I think I’m pretty good at. So I ask for feedback and all I get is, you know, The Crickets.”
To which I inquire— The Crickets?
“Yeah,” he says. “You know—so quiet you could hear the crickets chirp?”
Ah, yes, I do know. And the other leaders around the table chuckle and nod their heads in understanding. What leader hasn’t tried to draw out their team, only to be met with silence or perfunctory “Nope, we’re all good. Nothing to say.” While there’s no “truth serum” to get people talking, there are some ways to ensure that your team members will participate when asked.
Ways to Gain Input from Your Team
Think about how you ask the question. Are your questions truly open-ended, or are they statements disguised as a question? Phrases like, “What’s your reaction to the idea on the table?” and “Who has an alternative idea to offer?” are neutral and invite discussion. If you say something like, “Can we all agree that we need to do XYZ?” or “That’s a great idea, don’t you think?” tend to put the emphasis on your opinions and agenda. These statements are good for bringing a dialog to a close, but not for creating discussion.
[Related: Leading a meeting? Here’s how to expand or contract discussions.]
Inspect your consistency. Do you consistently ask for input? Or, do you only ask on the “easy” stuff—things that don’t take a lot of time to work through? Leaders who establish a track record of inviting diverse opinions are those who will, over time, get valuable input from their teams. Many leaders say to me, “I’d love to ask for input, but it takes too much time!” This is true; there’s an upfront investment. Ask yourself, “Will the investment of time upfront pay off in the long run?” If there is a true urgency and no time for extended discussion, you can still ask for input, but set a clear parameter: “Team, we’ve got a time crunch for this—we can only do a quick 15 minute huddle—what can you give me quickly to be sure we still make a good decision?”
Review your track record of taking action. The biggest mistake that I see from leaders is that they ask for input, (“because that’s our culture—we need to be team-based”) but don’t intend to do anything with it. If you know you won’t (or can’t) take any action on the team’s suggestions, don’t bother asking. Of course, you won’t be able to implement all suggestions, so again, set the framework: “I’m looking for 10 – 15 ideas. After that, we’ll whittle the ideas down to the ones that make the most sense, given our time and budget constraints.”
Do you close the loop? Which of their ideas did you use? Be sure to let them know. Moreover, be sure to let me know if you didn’t use the suggestions—and why. Be as specific as possible about why the suggestion couldn’t be implemented. By giving specific feedback now, you can inform the team’s thought process for later, helping them understand the bigger picture issues of budget, strategy, resources, and yes, even organizational politics. This will pay dividends for future “I’d like your input” discussions.
Enjoying the serenade of cricket night-song at home on a balmy evening is a delight. “Crickets” at your team meetings—not so much. Follow these four simple tips and you’ll reduce the silence at your team meetings and gain the much-needed input to be an effective leader.
What’s your favorite dialog-starter? How do you invite discussion that’s productive and open?
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Updated in 2021
Janna Rust says
To answer your questions above, I love to use a coaching approach on the items up for discussion. By saying this, I mean that I like to get feedback on what the ideal solution would look like and then ask some open ended questions to promote discussion, sometimes playing devil’s advocate to cover all aspects of the situation. Then, I have my groups prioritize their most important next action steps, assign them out and set the next meeting.
Jay Goldman says
This is great advice Jennifer! I’d say the last two are probably the most important if you want to build a “culture” of feedback. Giving feedback and answering questions is always a risk/reward calculation: will I look stupid? Will I be recognized for my input? Will the asker actually use my advice?
Establishing that you’re open to input and will actually listen and use it is critical. So is following up after to show people that their input was valuable — it really paves the way for the next time you ask. We saw a significant increase in responses to Rypple questions when we included the ability to close the loop. Telling your advisers how you used their feedback (especially committing to an action and then doing it!) really makes them see the reward and greatly lowers the risk for next time.