These subtle leadership behaviors can get in the way of people speaking up.
(Originally published in HBR. Photo: Boris Zhitkov/Getty Images)
The higher leaders go, the more likely they are to find themselves in an echo chamber, surrounded by people who think like them and agree with them. This occurs partly because of the affinity bias, which leads us to favor, associate with, and hire the people to whom we feel most similar. This dearth of diverse perspectives is further compounded by a couple of issues: problem-solving methods that lead to groupthink and the difficulty of establishing psychological safety. Collectively, these forces can result in leaders getting stuck in an echo chamber.
And while most leaders are aware of these forces and work to create a team culture that fosters voice and candor, subtle leadership behaviors can get in the way of their intentions.
For example, take my client Aviral, whose overly Socratic method of communication resulted in team members hesitating to bring ideas to him until they were “fully baked.” Or Michael, whose pacesetting style caused people to feel like they were imposing on his time and shouldn’t bother him with questions and concerns. Or Melissa, whose habit of frequently saying “no,” “but,” or “however” discouraged her team from providing feedback or offering dissenting opinions at meetings.
To guard against the strategic disadvantages of being stuck in an echo chamber, practice the following behaviors:
Continuously solicit feedback and ideas.
No matter how egalitarian and open you are as a leader, chances are high that many of your people withhold valuable information, ideas, and concerns from you.
You might tell your team, “We all have blind spots, myself included. I need your help to see mine and want you to question and disagree with me if you think I am off base.” Regularly repeat this request and follow up directly with your team members to specifically solicit their feedback and input.
Additionally, consistently ask your team for their ideas. Assure them they don’t need to build an ironclad case for every idea. Or, like Aviral’s team, they might hold back for fear of not having the answers to all your questions and looking dumb.
Finally, publicly acknowledge and thank independent voices that share a dissenting opinion, question your logic, or disagree with you. When your team sees that you meet challenging comments with gratitude, you’ll encourage more fearful employees to also speak up.
Demonstrate curiosity and listen.
Suppose you neglect to balance a drive for results with nurturing your relationships, as Michael did. This tendency can degrade trust, motivation, and engagement on your team — and cut you off from valuable information.
Instead, commit to holding time and space for your team and colleagues. For example, do not cancel your one-on-ones if there is no agenda; rather, repurpose the time to check in more holistically on the person. You might also use the time to solicit feedback and ideas and inquire if there are any issues you should be aware of. Be fully present, whether it’s a scheduled one-on-one or someone on your team asks for five minutes. Multi-tasking, showing impatience, and failing to listen well signals that you’re not interested in that person and what they have to say.
When someone disagrees with you or challenges your opinion, override the natural urge to resist or discount. Confirmation bias makes you adept at spotting the weaknesses in someone else’s position or argument but blind to the flaws or holes in your beliefs. Sometimes, exposure to counterevidence can even increase our confidence that our cherished beliefs are true.
Instead, adopt an attitude of curiosity and ask questions to understand their perspective better. For example, you might ask: “What led you to that conclusion?” or say, “Tell me more.”
Practice “yes, and.”
“Yes, and” is a foundational improv technique, but it’s also a practical philosophy for generating ideas and building relationships.
Imagine you’re at a meeting and sharing ideas. Each time, someone replies to your idea with a “no,” “but,” “however,” or “well, actually.” Naturally, you’re less inclined to share additional thoughts after a few of these discounting responses. Well, if you use these phrases when others share their ideas or feedback with you, you too will shut down potential contributions of valuable information.
Instead, use “yes, and” to acknowledge and build on someone’s idea. Of course, you won’t be able to use every contribution. But by acknowledging someone’s ideas, you help them feel listened to, considered, and encouraged to share ideas in the future.
Build a habit of speaking last in meetings to hear a more diverse set of ideas and mitigate groupthink. You already know what you know. What you need to do in meetings is discover what others know. Speaking last encourages your team to put their ideas and suggestions on the table, helps them feel listened to, and boosts ownership and team morale.
Speaking last doesn’t mean being entirely quiet. Instead, it means that you focus your initial comments on gathering and clarifying information through questions such as: “Why do you think that’s the right direction?”
When you finally share your perspective or render an opinion, you will have had the benefit of hearing what others know and think first. As it did for one CEO that I coached, this one shift alone can dramatically improve the quality of your meetings.
Seed different perspectives.
Intentionally interject unique perspectives or styles of problem-solving into your team and network.
For example, invite people from other parts of the company to team meetings to share alternate perspectives and views on a situation. You might also appoint a devil’s advocate to take an opposing viewpoint and raise contrary evidence and perspectives. The point of this role is to improve team decisions and results, not to encourage baseless argumentativeness. So be sure that the designee attacks the ideas, not the people, and offers solid logic and new alternatives.
Over the longer term, mitigate against affinity bias in hiring by ensuring ample diversity in your panel of interviewers. And work to build a non-insular network with diverse perspectives, values, and expertise.
Walk the talk.
While your team pays attention to what you say, they are more keenly attuned to what you do. As the aphorism goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”
As a leader, you must be the change you ask of others. Not “walking the talk” undercuts your professed commitment and trust in your leadership. Walking the talk may not always be easy, but it’s essential if you want to inspire others to follow you. By modeling the behaviors you’re asking your team to display, such as sharing feedback and ideas with your superiors, you build trust in your message and encourage others to behave similarly.
Taking the actions outlined here will help you step outside the bubble of agreement where many leaders unwittingly exist. You’ll generate stronger connection and communication with your team and colleagues, encourage fresh and creative perspectives, and make better decisions. Building these new habits may be challenging at first, but in these fast-paced and uncertain times, now more than ever it’s worth the effort.
With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina