Your department has a meeting to decide how to implement a new program. After some discussion, you tentatively suggest an idea. However, it is ignored.
As the meeting progresses, one of your co-workers says, “Hey, here’s an idea …” and repeats your suggestion almost word for word.
Now, “your” idea is met with a chorus of “Great idea!” from your colleagues.
You are not alone if you have ever experienced this.
Dr Sonia Herasymowich, PhD, a university instructor and consultant on mental diversity, says ideas are sometimes not acknowledged the first time they are stated because of differences in thinking styles.
Right-brained thinkers (most of whom are women) tend to be intuitive. They may jump to a conclusion and express it before their left-brained colleagues (most of whom are men) have arrived at the same conclusion. It is only after the discussion has logically led to the idea that it is likely to be embraced by the left-brained thinkers.
Dr Sonia, as she is known to her clients and students, suggests that right-brained thinkers can get credit for an idea by writing it down on a flipchart or whiteboard immediately after expressing it. While the group continues its discussion, the right-brained thinker can be working backwards, writing the steps leading up to the idea.
“At some point, the group will look up and say, ‘oh great, you’re writing it down’,” says Dr Sonia. “At the very least, you will be seen as someone who has helped the team reach its conclusion.”
Whether or not your ideas are listened to may also depend on how clearly you express them.
In her book Talking From 9 to 5, Deborah Tannen, PhD, reports that when it comes to communicating in the workplace, employees who get heard at meetings tend to be those who speak more directly, more loudly, and at greater length than their co-workers.
Trying to be polite may backfire. Says Tannen, “Many people try to avoid seeming presumptuous by prefacing their statements with a disclaimer such as, ‘I don’t know if this will work, but …’ or ‘You’ve probably already thought of this, but …’.” Such disclaimers may result in the rest of the communication being ignored.
However, simply telling employees to speak up is not the answer to ensuring everyone’s contributions are heard. Some employees may need time to reflect before speaking, while others may not speak up for fear of looking foolish.
Companies that want to take advantage of contributions from all their employees need to teach their managers and group leaders to foster communication.
Says Tannen, “The most important point is for managers to become skilled at observing group processes and noticing each group member’s role.” The group leader can then give credit where it is due and encourage greater participation from all.
Going around the table and asking everyone to state their opinion is one way to encourage greater participation. However, participants are often influenced by what has been said before them and may not risk disagreeing with someone higher up in the organisation.
Therefore, a better idea is to invite employees to submit their opinions in writing either before or at the meeting.
Another option is the Japanese practice of “nemawashi”, in which a facilitator meets one-on-one with participants before the meeting. The facilitator can then make a presentation that includes various opinions, thereby ensuring that everyone’s opinion is taken into account and saving face for those whose suggestions are not followed.
To elicit ideas from those who need time to reflect after the meeting, Dr Sonia suggests managers conclude with a comment such as “If anyone has any more ideas before tomorrow morning, put them in writing and leave them on my desk.”
Companies that follow such practices may be rewarded with ideas and innovations beyond those expressed during the meeting.