On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

Will your team members speak up?

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

Johnson: "We had some problems with the calibrations."

Commanding Officer: "Johnson, we won't have mistakes like that on board my ship. Do you understand?

Johnson: "Yes sir."

Commanding Officer: "Smith, how did things go in your area?"

I observed a dialog just like this during a team meeting led by a seasoned Commanding Officer. Can you guess how Smith responded?

You could probably predict how Smith responded. "No problems here, Sir." Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to develop a high performing team when team members aren't comfortable admitting mistakes, expressing concerns, offering alternatives, or just simply sharing their opinions. In many team settings the team leader can't see everything, and even when she can, others on the team might have a different or better perspective. A key to team effectiveness is creating an environment where team members are motivated to speak up.

Team leaders often see this differently than their team members. On many occasions I've had leaders express frustration to me that their team won't provide ample input. The leader will tell me that "I have an open door," or "I always allow my team to tell me what's on their mind." But when I talk with their team members I get a different story. They don't think the leader really wants their input, unless it's good news or to voice agreement. How can we reconcile these discrepant perspectives?

First, let's differentiate between allowing input and encouraging input. Often when leaders say they are open to input what they really mean is that they allow it, but what they haven't done is to encourage it.

Consider a discussion I witnessed while facilitating a medical team debrief. After a simulated surgical emergency, we uncovered that team members didn't feel comfortable speaking up. The team leader, a surgeon, was surprised. "What did I do to discourage you," he asked. The reply from a team member was, "Nothing. But you didn't do anything to encourage us." Even more interesting was the story the junior most member of the team, a scrub tech, then shared with the surgeon.

He said, "Imagine that you were walking across the mall parking lot and noticed a guy who left his lights on as he got out his car. You say, excuse me, your lights are on. And he says, don't be stupid, they shut off automatically. If tomorrow you were to notice another guy who left his lights on, would you say anything? I'm quiet today because of what a doctor said to me a month ago. You guys intimidate us, so if you don't tell me that you want me to speak up if I see something, I'm just going to keep quiet."

Notice that this leader didn't do anything to overtly discourage his team but they had learned from past experience that it was safer to keep quiet. So, what can leaders do to actively encourage team members to speak up? Here's what I've seen work over the years...

  • Admit your own mistakes – it's probably the most powerful way to enable others to do so.
  • Tell your team where input is encouraged and also what's off limits – if you aren't clear about the difference, when you "shut down" someone for talking about what you consider to be an off-limit topic, your team thinks everything is off-limits.
  • When a team member offers a dissenting opinion, tell him you appreciate that he is speaking up – if you do this even when you disagree, you will send a strong signal that you are open to input.
  • Do not punish people for admitting a mistake or expressing a concern – unless you want them to hide future ones.
  • When team members offer suggestions, try to find at least one you can implement – then let the team know you did it based on their input.
  • When you ask your team for input, give them a little time to think about it – don't assume they have nothing to say because they didn't provide an immediate response.

What have been your experiences as a team leader or team member? Have you ever been reluctant to speak up? What have you seen or done that has helped team members speak up?