Silence Doesn’t Mean Incompetence: Make Your Teams More Effective

I recently made a LinkedIn post that has gathered over a million views for a simple reason. It pinpointed a burning problem many people have experienced but could not visualize or quantify in a way that would hold water during an argument or passionate discussion: that, especially in a team or meeting setting, confidence does not equal competence, and silence does not equal incompetence.

Most people are aware of typical team dynamics where the loud people get heard and the quiet ones are dismissed. This often leads to lost potential instead of the synergy the teams were originally created for. It is tempting to jump to the most often heard conclusions:

• Quiet people are just introverts, and that is normal.

• Everybody can speak up, so why don’t they? It is their fault.

• What is the point in being there if they don’t even want to contribute?

There are many possible reasons why people choose not to speak up and hide their often-valuable insights and perspectives. Based on thousands of assessments my company has administered in dozens of global companies, there are three main reasons why so much potential is lost in a team setting.

Why don’t people speak up?

1. Lack Of Psychological Safety

The level of safety somebody feels in a team determines how brave they can be and how much they are willing and able to contribute. Feeling unsafe can stem from several sources, including leaders who tolerate non-inclusive behaviors, take credit for other people’s ideas or punish people for mistakes or opposing ideas. The reason can also be more personal, as well, such as low self-esteem, introversion, a bad experience at one’s previous job, etc. At the end of the day, it does not matter whose fault it is; it is everybody’s responsibility to address it as it affects everyone.

2. Lack Of Motivation And Engagement

Families tend to be psychologically safe, and they do not require extra effort or qualification to be part of them. In general, kids are not put on furlough and parents are not fired if they do not perform as well when they get older.

A business, on the other hand, requires the drive to get things done, in other words, motivation. Extrinsic motivators—in other words, the “carrot and stick” or pain and pleasure principles—can make employees perform for a while, but real engagement requires intrinsic motivators, the ones that drive people from inside. Even though these motivators are sustainable, people can easily lose the will to contribute when they do not feel valued and understood, and/or when they do not agree with the purpose of the company or the way it conducts business.

3. Too Much Cognitive Diversity Without The Knowledge To Make It Work

Cognitive diversity is often called the immune system of teams; although it is a type of diversity that has proven benefits in terms of performance, it is also a force that can derail team dynamics.

Our brain loves predictability and staying in its comfort zone; that is the exact opposite of how people feel in an environment full of individuals who think and behave in very different ways. When our best practices do not get us the desired results, when others react completely differently from what we expect, when random and opposing ideas make us feel confused, frustrated or defensive, it is extremely hard to feel psychologically safe and motivated.

That is exactly where the potential lies, for success or disaster. It depends on how much we understand ourselves and others.

Do you run away from danger or from discomfort? The brain can’t tell the difference. Looking for the feeling of comfort instead of safety is a sure way to fail. But once we know the difference and have the blueprint for how to turn these differences into synergy instead of painful liability, the feeling of progress replaces fear and insecurity turns into confidence, making things happen.

How can we unlock the true potential of teams?

Stories without data are just noise, and data without stories are powerless. But when you combine both, they create a powerful message that fuels engagement, a growth mindset and the drive to get things done.

Start by measuring what matters instead of guessing. It is easy to jump to conclusions about what the root cause of a team’s dysfunction might be, but solving a problem that’s not the main issue will not get you the desired results. Creating meaningful conversations driven by data and rooted in science is by far the most powerful way of uncovering the real reasons why some people are quiet during meetings. Even though the process can be uncomfortable, the outcome will be fulfilling as the real issues will be addressed. It is rare to have a surgery without any blood, but it can save lives. In this case, these courageous conversations can save businesses and future-proof an organization.

Of course, it is not easy to change habits and create a safe environment, especially if some employees have already gotten burned due to external interactions or internal perceptions of the situation. So start slowly—time is needed to believe a better way of working is possible and experience is required to upgrade that hope to prove that it is true. Starting with anonymous, written suggestions is already progress. Encouraging the right behaviors is as important as not tolerating those that are detrimental to developing an atmosphere where cognitive diversity is harnessed in a psychologically safe and motivating high-performing team.

The article was written by Csaba Toth and it was originally published on Forbes here.

Csaba Toth
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Csaba Toth

Founder at ICQ Global
Author of Uncommon Sense in Unusual Times, developer of the multi award-winning Global DISC model
Csaba Toth
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