One of the challenges we face as leaders is getting the most from every member of the team. Where this shows up is in team meetings.

So often, just a few dominate the conversation while others hardly say a word. And it can feel like you’re pulling teeth to try to get the quiet ones to speak up.

When you’re looking to deliver big results and innovate, you need a diverse set of inputs and that means hearing from everyone.

But not everyone is comfortable speaking in a meeting. It could be cultural. They could need time to think and reflect before saying something and that doesn’t always fit into the timeframe of a meeting. It could be that you’re doing all the talking.

For me, it was fear of losing face and feeling intimidated by my peers who always seemed to know more than me.

Early on in my career, I struggled to speak up in meetings. I knew I “should” say something but was afraid to sound ignorant or look foolish in front of my peers. I’d think of something to say, then wrestle with myself to get up the courage to say it. By the time I got up the courage, someone else would have made the point. Then I’d spend the rest of the meeting beating myself up for missing my opportunity!

Whatever the reason people aren’t speaking up, it’s a problem because this means you aren’t getting the most from your team.

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How can you get more of your team members to speak up in meetings?

This is where psychological safety comes in.

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson is the expert in the field and author of The Fearless Organization. She defines psychological safety as “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Indeed, not wanting to take personal risk is a big reason people hold back. Am I going to sound ignorant? Will I be the one pouring cold water on everyone else’s enthusiasm?

It takes courage to speak up. Unless you make feeling free to speak up the norm in your team, you can’t expect it to magically happen.

The thing about psychological safety is it’s a felt sense. It’s invisible but everyone can feel it. It’s the mood in the room, and it can come and go. When people have a sense of belonging and where there’s trust and respect, you’re more likely to have psychological safety prevail.

But even then, people can feel uncomfortable saying certain things and hold back. It could be out of fear of sounding ignorant or being laughed at. It could be out of niceness, like not wanting to make a colleague look bad. It could be out of respect, like not wanting to step on someone else’s toes or feeling it’s not your place to point something out if someone more senior hasn’t said it already.

And if it needs to be said, then you can play a role in encouraging it to come out. Help people with the how. The first step is noticing. Then you can do something about it.

Here are three steps you can take to create psychological safety for your team:

  • Establish norms
  • Live the norms
  • Make it easy for people to engage

Establish norms for “how we want to be with each other”

A concept I like from coaching is “good contracting upfront”. This means agreeing the way you’re going to work together before you start. And if you’ve already been working together as a team for a while, it can simply be agreeing at the start of the meeting or setting new terms of engagement going forward. Think of it as getting clear on what’s “okay” and “not okay” in your relationship and interactions.

Taking the time upfront to agree the “rules of engagement” or “rules of belonging” makes it much easier to enforce those agreements later on. In fact, it means your team members can hold each other accountable rather than you having to step in all the time.

In a meeting context, some norms could be to share the airtime, be succinct, not interrupt whoever is speaking, adopt a “yes and” rather than “no but” approach, or have a “no checking email” policy. It’s also helpful to agree the norm for how you correct each other when a norm is broken.

You can also think of it as what the team would like the default behavior to be as a group. For example, one of my team members noted that we’re so nice to each other that we tend not to challenge each other. This means we end up waiting for others to get around to doing the task. So a new norm we’ve established is, “We ask the question, we don’t wait.”

When you engage your team members in establishing these norms, they’ll automatically have bought-in so you won’t have to be the enforcer every time.

Which brings us to the next step.

Live the norms you’ve established

Establishing the norms is a great start, but they’re going to be useless if no one abides by them. It’s especially important to call things out at the beginning to establish these new habits.

I like to give timely reminders, like quickly restating the key meeting etiquette norms at the start of the meeting. Prevention is better than having to catch someone in the act and come in as the enforcer.

But if things happen during the meeting that can hurt psychological safety, you’ll need to be prepared to step in. For example, when someone repeats a point made earlier without giving the original person credit, it’s important for you to say something. When you let it go unchecked, it can diminish someone’s confidence and make them feel unheard, even invisible.

To fully live the norms established by the group, the best leaders adopt a bias toward not letting things go unaddressed. And when it comes to inappropriate comments, you as the leader need to be prepared to adopt a zero-tolerance approach and say “that’s not okay”. By doing nothing, you are in essence condoning the behavior. And that makes it unsafe for some team members to speak up.

This brings us to the next step.

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Make it easy for people to engage

Having established the norms and enforced them early and often, there still may be some team members who need encouragement. That’s where you can play a key role as a leader.

For example, the way you run the meeting can make it easier or harder for people to speak up. Notice whether the agenda topics lean toward just a few people dominating the meeting. Check your own behavior to see how you’re coming across – might you be seen as intimidating when you want to invite participation? Observe whether a few naturally outgoing people dominate the conversation.

When this happens, make it easier for others to engage by inviting people to share their thoughts and observations. To do this without putting anyone on the spot, you can get quiet team members involved by asking, “what points of view have we not yet considered?”

And in some cases, it means approaching quieter team members prior to the meeting to let them know you would value their views and having them in the mix. I remember what a difference it made to my confidence when my skip level boss encouraged me to speak up, saying, “you know just as much as the guys – probably more”.

But what if you’ve tried everything and one team member still doesn’t speak up?

Every person is different. Rather than make assumptions, it’s best to have a conversation with team members individually. Based on what they tell you, you can agree some ways to help your team member feel comfortable speaking in the meeting.

And when they do, make it a positive experience for them.

For each of us, it may take something different to feel the level of interpersonal safety to participate. It’s helpful for you as a leader to recognize that and work with people based on what they need.

Just don’t make the mistake of breaking your own norms

If you’re checking your email during meetings or interrupting people before they’ve finished talking, you’ll be setting a double standard. And others will likely do as you do and not as you say. Worse yet, this destroys trust and brings down the level of psychological safety.

So make sure to role model the norms yourself. And if you unintentionally break a norm, go back and correct it once you become aware. Having the confidence to admit you were wrong goes a long way to creating safety for your team to do the same. After all, no one is perfect. Not even “the leader”.

And it’s when leaders are under stress and not self-managing that these kinds of mistakes come about. I’ll talk about the role of your “stress personality” and how it can derail you as a leader in another post.

As you create an environment of psychological safety where all team members can speak up, remember to:

  • Establish norms – agree what’s okay and not okay upfront
  • Live the norms – enforce the norms you’ve agreed and role model them yourself
  • Make it easy for people to engage – invite people to share their thoughts and ideas without putting them on the spot

Which of these steps do you need to take to create psychological safety in your team?

Leave a comment and let me know.