Continued from an earlier blog entry:
Dispersed participation means tapping into the minds of all who are in the meeting and encouraging that they become engaged. It is living the value of wanting everyone’s opinion and knowing that if left to chance, this will be unlikely to occur, and the group’s ability to pull off their business goals will be diminished. Dispersed participation immediately begins establishing healthy norms around managing differences (thus you are actively navigating Tuckman’s second and third stages from the very beginning!). Establishing this norm involves added structure such as occasional pairings to your meetings (see below) and will only happen if someone actively creates it! It is a blend of Inclusive Forming, Constructive Storming, and Active Norming. It is not so much a stage as it is a planned evolving strategy to involve all as co-creators of the product of each meeting which, in an aware group, begins in the Inclusive Forming stage. It is a strategy that acknowledges that humans have a wide range of interactional patterns and need structure to have dispersed participation.
By some of the above mentioned interventions you (the reader) have already moved participation from a one or two person dominated meeting towards a meeting where the voices of all are more likely to be heard and reinforced as important.
In addition to our earlier less formal suggestions, if you are the meeting leader, you will choose moments in the meeting to inject dispersed participation: “Here’s our agenda. Take that first item and talk to the person beside you to warm up for our discussion.” Or perhaps you will disperse participation by suggesting that they talk in pairs about whether there’s any topic that needs to be added to the agenda. In a sense you are inviting an organized “sidebar” conversation in order to engage everyone. The goal is to have everyone hear their own voice talking so as to reduce anxiety especially with newer or “lower in the hierarchy” employees, to allow more introverted members a chance to think out loud but with some privacy (talking to one peer is a lot less threatening to most than is trying to articulate their view to an entire group), and to set a norm that engages all and invites all to take ownership of the outcomes.
Now who would resist this? Well, those few who have learned how to function well in a meeting where participation is not dispersed!
Example: Imagine a meeting with 50 employees attending. The manager who has called the meeting talks for a while and then asks, “Any questions?” Who speaks when the manager asks this, or if the custom is to do so, who raises their hands?
In our experience, there are usually two or three in the audience who will speak up first and do most, or even all, of the talking. They know how to be heard in a non-dispersed situation. Also, in smaller groups, two or three often do most of the talking. Worse, since wider participation is not the norm, these few are likely to represent any hostility resident in the group and do so in an angry, blaming way!
These few resist participation being dispersed!
Of course, it’s easier to change this dynamic if you are the leader of the meeting. As a member, you would be wise to wait and make this and related suggestions privately to the leader before the next meeting, rather than try to control such dynamics on your own. Put yourself in the leader’s shoes…it’s easier to receive “corrective” feedback (even if it is simply intended as helpful) privately than publicly. And it will be less awkward for you if the leader rejects your suggestion. To the leader, here is what we suggest:
Begin with a brief statement about the agenda or a key issue. Then say, “Discuss this with someone beside you and in a few minutes I would like to hear what you think.” Do not ask if this is ok!! Immediately turn your back, avert your eyes, or do whatever you need to do to not get sucked into immediately engaging with the two or three who do not want their influence to be diffused (walk out of the room, take a sip of water, turn and talk to a colleague, etc.).
In many cases, just asking the participants to turn and say or do something like that suggested above will be enough for them to do it, but in extreme cases like illustrated above you will need to be firm. I’ve seen these few raise their hands vigorously and even shout their objections in an attempt to try and stop such pairings. Consciously or not, they may anxiously want to maintain their status as the spokespersons. They speak in “we” language as if they represent all! Rarely do they speak for themselves. Also, many silent employees are glad to empower the few who speak so they can stay safely on the sidelines. The purpose here is not to end dissent, but rather to empower all to join in the co-creation of the group or meeting and to do so in a problem solving, not a blaming, way.
Three or four minutes are long enough (although if people are obviously engaged in their paired conversations, you might wisely give them more time). Now you have a next critical intervention. “Ok, I want to hear what you’re thinking. Speak for yourself. Someone over there start (pointing in a direction away from the vocal few).” I once witnessed a large meeting of ninety go from seven participating to over fifty speaking in a meeting two weeks later. This is not easy, but the “tyranny of the few” (usually the more extroverted) must be broken if you are to move to the next stage in a productive way. Also ask, “Any comments?” not, “Any questions?” When you ask for questions people often, wanting to make a statement, twist their comments into a fake question. Not catching this, leaders try to answer and are almost always then immediately refuted. If someone makes a “disguised as a question” remark, say, “Do you have an opinion you want to state?” Almost always the response will be, “Yes!”
Next segment: Stage Two – Constructive Storming/Managing Differences