Missing Voices and Squeaky Wheels: How to Make Sure Everyone Is heard

I had a salutary experience some years ago about missing important inputs to a discussion. It turned out well in the end but I learned a lesson about was how easy it is to use everyday practices without too much thought and, as a result, not even know you are silencing some people and privileging others. If you want workgroups to function well, you have to avoid this trap.

I was running a workshop for a market research team. They were a pretty laid back bunch, the type that wear casual clothes to work, use first names and joke and laugh a lot. On the first evening we were agenda setting and I asked the group each to write down one key thing we needed to discuss over the weekend. Sprawled in easy chairs in a big circle, they thought for a few minutes and wrote their ideas down. When we were ready, I started with the person on my left and went clockwise, asking each to read out their idea as a basis for more discussion later. It went well until I reached the last person on my right—let’s call her Pippa. Pippa blushed and said, “I got it wrong”.

Now it is obvious that one cannot, in the literal sense, get it wrong, so I realised something was amiss and tried to get her to share the idea but she kept shaking her head. Finally, to see if making light of it would work, I mimicked a suitor, knelt in front of her and hamming it up threw my arms wide and said, “Pippa, Pippa, I beseech you, read to me”, whereupon she laughed, blushed some more and read out the most important and insightful idea of the group.

What had happened here? Well, Pippa was the youngest person there, the most recent recruit to the team and (notwithstanding that this was not a conservative outfit) a woman in a mixed setting. So in terms of age, experience and gender she was lower on the totem pole than the older, more experienced, male team members. Since her idea was quite unlike what they had said, she was hesitant and embarrassed and felt ‘wrong’. Luckily, we got past this moment, but it is not hard to imagine another scenario where Pippa hastily changes her card, reads out something anodyne and the whole group loses an insight they needed.

My first reaction to this, when I understood it, was to change my practice in a very simple way. When I want to get people to share ideas I have always avoided the idea of ‘throwing the floor open’—that simply ensures that the confident extroverts speak out quickly and set the agenda. (I know, I’m one, so I’m not running down people I’m jealous of!) But until this moment, I had not paid attention to sequencing the contributions in any way. After this, however, I began to think hard about asking the most junior people first and ‘working up’.

I now call this the NELSON PRINCIPLE because a Navy friend assured me that the British hero ADM Lord Nelson did this in councils of war. Recognising that a LEUT would defer to a CAPT (and not vice versa) Nelson ‘briefed upwards’, maximising the diversity of input. If you want to have an around-the-room discussion, this simple process works well to maximise input and minimise inadvertent silencing.

Once you think along these lines, however, it does not take long to realise that this works as long as the contribution is not too controversial. Asking a junior person to kick off ideas and expecting them to ‘throw a dead cat on the table’ seems truly unwise. So what can you do?

Well, I use several fairly easy and obvious techniques that get stuff ‘on the table’ and do so without too much danger of being labelled by others. These also have the advantage of overcoming ‘halo’ effects, negative or positive. There is a very considerable literature on the biases built into implicit cognition which, at very least, alert us to the danger that a good idea from an unpopular person is likely to get less credence than a mediocre idea from a very popular one. These techniques flatten haloes out.

They also overcome what I used to call ‘posturing’. Thanks to the work of Garrod and Pickering (see my SlideShare at http://tinyurl.com/bgx6a7l) I now think of this more as a demand function towards ‘serial monologue’. Whatever you call it, in groups of more than 7 or 8 people those who speak tend to make speeches rather than talk informally and no dialogue results. Cross this with the tendency noted above (and also covered in the SlideShare) for the (over)confident extroverts to spout and pretty soon you have a ‘squeaky’ wheel problem—a few people who say a lot, often and a silent majority who don’t get their ideas into the pool.

So, two very simple and not especially original techniques that really work to overcome these tendencies in workgroups are:

The 35 method. I’m not sure where I got this first. It wasn’t Thiagi but looking now through Google that is the only place I can see it listed: http://tinyurl.com/6z285et. Whatever, this really simple technique uses ideas written anonymously on cards which are shared and rated in a simple ‘mixing’ model. Using a series of two person, brief conversations which energise the group, cards are scored in a way that allows the best received ideas to rise to the top, quite independently of who wrote them.

I cannot commend this too strongly—I have used it everywhere from teenage Air Force school cadets to the most senior military and executives, through public and private sector workgroups in a wide variety of industries. Doctors, police, fast-jet pilots, social workers, teachers… it never fails. I have used it to generate questions and to generate answers, to evaluate, to explore and sometimes just light heartedly to spice up a serious workshop—like the time I asked a military group responsible for listening for submarine noises to decide on the best motto for their unit and the card that ‘won’ hands down said, “What the F**K was THAT?”

A simple ‘Post-It’ Model. I’m sure most are familiar with this old one but it is still good. Around a room you put up large Post-Its, butcher’s paper, whatever. Each ‘sheet’ has a key question on it. Everyone in the group writes individual sized Post-It notes (one note per idea or comment, no limit to how many notes) and sticks them up next to the question to which they are in part an answer*. The group then divides into work teams, each team sorts and themes the notes on ‘their’ sheet and prepares a short summary presentation.

Both of these are simple and one at least very well known. Both work and they do so because they manage a variety of potential problems—squeaky wheels get no audience to posture to, quiet people get their ideas heard, confidence is not connected to agenda setting, popularity is disconnected from approval, difficult topics can be raised without fear the messenger will be shot, groupthink is generally avoided and so on. These are essential elements if you want participation, engagement and synergy.

Tip: if you want to do this one, spray the base sheets with re-positionable glue and the new Post-Its don’t fall off but can be sorted easily.

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About stephenmugford

Once a sociologist (1970-1997) then a consultant who reads a lot in psychology, cognitive science, complexity, etc and wanders along paths from one topic to another.
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One Response to Missing Voices and Squeaky Wheels: How to Make Sure Everyone Is heard

  1. Don Lowe says:

    Thanks Stephen! After seeing you use the 35 technique several years ago, I now use it frequently. I also use the post-it note technique in a number of forms. Both provide great access to individual ideas in a group setting (as well as getting people to stand up, move and engage).

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