xxix) Why Team Members Won't Speak Out, and Ways to Handle this Situation


Some indications that team members are not voicing their opinions

. There is conflict within the organisation, ie team members appear frustrated, impotent and unhappy. They may avoid meetings at which the conflict is being discussed.

. Team members place much of the blame for the dilemma on the boss or some other team

. There are informal meetings to discuss the organisation's problems and there is much disagreement as to the causes of the problems and the ways to solve them. Much of what's said begins with assertions like

"...we should do..."

. Meetings with people outside the team to discuss the problem, ie in the team meetings people are holding their views back but are willing to discuss their views with others outside the team; sometimes positions are reversed, positions are stated in ambiguous terms, etc

. After some meetings, members complain that they did not have the opportunity to express their true feelings and views

Furthermore, one of the main problems with teams is that team members are often unable to disagree effectively. There are 6 main causes for this

1 The presence of someone with perceived expertise, ie the other team members' natural reaction is to give their proxy to the experts

2 The presentation of a compelling, but ultimately inferior, argument, ie at times it can be difficult to distinguish between "best" and "good" answers, so probing in the continued pursuit of better solutions ie required

3 Lack of confidence in their ability to contribute, ie without the right kind of encouragement, team members may never develop the confidence required to make their views known

4 The decision to be made seems unimportant or meaningless, ie if issues are perceived as not relevant to some team members, they are unlikely to contribute

5 Pressures from others to conform to the team's decision, ie reaching consensus does not always mean achieving complete agreement. Sometimes teams unwittingly appoint a gate keeper or "defender of unanimity" whose role is to protect the team from disturbing thoughts or ideas

6 There is a dysfunctional decision-making climate, ie at times team members can experience frustrations, indifference or disorganisation. As a result, some team members take this confusion as a cue to limit their involvement.

There is a need to teach team members the art of participation and of dissent. How can opposing viewpoints be solicited in a way that invites dialogue and produces a superior decision?

What can be done to overcome the perception of disagreement as reactive, ie people seeing others responding to their ideas and interpreting them as a personal confrontation? The challenge is to make discussions as proactive as possible. There is a need to instil a non-threatening environment for the team's deliberations.

Some steps to handle this situation

. Ask people for their opinions, and then recognise their contributions with praise and other encouragement

. Promote open discussion of what makes teams effective and what hinders them

. Clarify the objectives you and others are working towards, ie ask members to define and write down their priority in the situation and to list what has already been done towards achieving that stated goal. Then highlight the gaps between the 2. Arguing about tactics is a waste of time if members don't share the same objectives. Shared objectives provide a secure platform of consensus to fall back on if the confrontation becomes too intense. Furthermore, this strategy provides the shy team members with an opportunity to submit ideas without the threat of having to express them aloud.

. Inquire about what the team is considering, ie ways of doing this include asking questions such as

- how would we respond to the concern that.........?

- could it appear to conflict with our values on.........?

- how might........... interpret that?

- how would we answer charges that......... ?

- what alternatives might our stakeholders want us to consider?

- what would we say if asked about other options we considered and why they were discarded?

The purpose of these questions is to allow the team to shift its perspective slightly, to engage it in critically assessing the issues and to help it to avoid the reflex to push back

. Appoint someone as the Devil's advocate, ie it lifts the disagreement off the person a little as long as people understand that someone is taking on the role, and why such an opening up of dialogue (which allows challenging assumptions and conclusions with a hope of offering alternative viewpoints) is so constructive.

. Encourage everyone to do their homework, ie possessing supporting information leads to a more informed discussion

. Accept the final results gracefully, especially when they don't coincide with your assumptions, ie don't treat controversies as a win-lose situation

(source: Harvard Management Updates, 1996 ‐ 99)


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