Louise Rodgers on how not to stifle people

Louise Rodgers crop 2

In my last column I tackled the thorny topic of back-to-back online meetings and the toll this has taken on people’s time, and on their lives, during the last 18 months. Yet, for many people online working has also brought huge benefits. One of these has been that, in some ways, it has proved a great leveller.

This first came to my attention when, for an episode of our podcast Coaches On The Couch, Rachel Birchmore and I spoke with several architects, founders of practices considered to be “emerging”. One of our guests mentioned how, without having to visit fancy offices for project or client meetings, where the surroundings can be as intimidating as they are impressive, it was easier to speak up. “Everyone occupies the same sized small square on a screen” is a relatable statement.

I was reminded of this recently during a coaching session with a young woman who has a big job. In common with many other people (usually younger, and usually women) who I have coached, one of her objectives was to gain more “gravitas” and, as usual when someone I am working with expresses this goal, I asked her what she meant by gravitas. “I am physically small, and I am young, and sometimes I feel I struggle to come across as serious, or experienced, or knowledgeable enough about my job,” she said.

The journalist Viv Groskop has written a book about this. In How to Own The Room, she talks to inspirational women about the secrets of brilliant speaking. The book (and podcast of the same name) holds that “gravitas” is not something one is necessarily born with, but that it can be developed. It includes some useful tips and tricks that many of my clients have found helpful.

But more recently I have been thinking: What if no one had to learn tips and tricks to succeed in getting their point across? What if the people with whom they are communicating focused on making sure that everyone felt able to make an equal contribution, regardless of, for example, their gender, age or skin colour?

What needs to happen for this to be the case is that leaders accept responsibility for creating psychological safety, both within their own teams and within the meetings that they call or chair.

Psychological safety is the shared belief that it is safe to take personal risks – such as speaking up or challenging the status quo or putting forward creative ideas – and that the reward for doing so is that your thoughts and opinions will be heard and valued rather than dismissed or ridiculed.

One would hope that being made to feel stupid was not a common experience in our sector. However what message does it send to people if, during a virtual or actual meeting, you pay more attention to the emails arriving on your phone or demonstrate some other small sign of disengagement? Being fully present is the first thing we can do to show that we are open to receiving the views of others.

The next is to listen to what they have to say. This sounds so obvious but how often do we interrupt, jump to solution-finding, or interrupt someone else’s train of thought by interjecting our own idea on top of theirs? In his book The Advice Trap, Michael Bungay Stanier urges us all to “stay curious a little bit longer”. He acknowledges that this isn’t something that is intrinsic to many of us. It is something to be practised.

And when you have heard someone out, show that you have understood by repeating what was said and perhaps encourage them to say more by asking additional questions. Of course, what they are saying may be off beam, but hearing them out rather than shutting them down will build confidence and encourage future input.

We can also support people who find it hard to speak up by inviting them to do so. This doesn’t mean putting them on the spot by drawing attention to their lack of participation. It means setting the tone for everyone to feel they can contribute, perhaps by asking each of them to do so. This can be done in advance. Asking people to read a paper, review a set of drawings, consider a new approach, and then come along to a meeting prepared to talk about it can widen out the conversation and bring in more creativity. It can also make people who are naturally more introverted feel better prepared and able to contribute.

I often hear leaders complain that their teams don’t speak up in meetings. They say: “They don’t come forward with new ideas” or, “They seem risk averse” or even, “It’s quicker to do it myself, rather than open things up for discussion.”

If this is you, then consider that if you want your employees to feel safer speaking up, how can you do more to provide the environment and culture to support them to do just that?