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Why great leaders speak last

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Have you ever been in a meeting where the moment the leader in the room speaks up, the conversation becomes completely reoriented around their opinions and talking points?

That happened to us recently when one of the individuals at the company we were coaching took a strong stance about a particular component of the initiative we were working on. It transformed the entire conversation. Instead of encouraging dissent or discussion, this leader created an environment where everyone was looking to her first to gauge their own reactions.

It probably feels like your job as a leader is to speak up first and set the tone for the conversation. But that tends to create “groupthink” where the rest of the discussion is set on course by the first person to speak confidently and loudly.

We’re inundated with so many opinions every day that we can’t expect any one person to have all the answers. Now more than ever, leaders have to engage the collective intelligence of their teams and invite a diversity of perspectives into meeting rooms. Here’s how:

1. Don’t drop an anchor

A group tends to latch onto the first thing said in a meeting. That’s one reason the outspoken individual’s comment was so persuasive — it created an anchor that the rest of the conversation circled around. Whether the point was valid doesn’t really matter; it prevailed simply because it dropped first. What follows an anchor is a series of adjustments: Each subsequent comment inevitably relates to the anchor comment, until everyone reaches a compromised solution. This is also known as the “anchoring and adjustment” mental heuristic.

If you’re in a position to drop an anchor, don’t. Sit back and give others the time to form their own opinions and space to express them. Even better, speaking first to invite another individual to contribute to the conversation makes sure everyone can chime in and defend their thoughts, thus fostering diversity of opinion.

Speaking last as an authority figure can do wonders for your team’s sense of accountability and ownership; you’re reacting to the points they’ve made, rather than anchoring them to your own.

2. Experiment with idea-gathering

When we work with teams affected by groupthink, we start by opening their process up to diverse perspectives. Instead of verbal responses, we ask individuals to write down their response to a prompt on a sticky note. Then, everyone holds up their sticky note at the same time. Without an anchor weighing them in a specific direction, people’s answers become more honest and creative.

A leader’s role is not to invite ideas by stating theirs first. The true magic of effective leadership is being able to ask the right questions and create an environment for success — not supplying the right answers and micromanaging others’ ideas.

3. Practice active listening to integrate the team’s ideas

The best way for a leader to contribute to a meeting is by integrating the team’s ideas. There’s certainly a place for adding ideas and information yourself, but leaders are best positioned to actively listen and then point out the common themes emerging from the group.

Active listening means devoting your attention to the speaker (rather than waiting for them to finish so that you can speak). This boosts your team’s confidence in their ideas: Employees who feel heard are 4.6 times more likely to also feel empowered at work.

One tactic you can use to make sure you’re listening is to repeat back what you’ve heard; this ensures that the speaker feels listened to before continuing. And even then, don’t take the lead in speaking — use what you’ve learned from observing the discussion to open up the floor to someone else.

It’s important for leaders to operate with a mindset that “my job is to ask the right questions” as opposed to “my job is to have all the answers” — or “my job is to manage and direct work” versus “my job is to create structure and conditions for success and get out of the way.” It feels powerful to lead the charge and set the tone. But to be a leader who empowers the team and encourages innovation, it’s more effective to sit back, listen, and let ideas grow organically.

 

Luba Koziy is an associate director at BTS, an organization that works with leaders to help them make better decisions, convert those decisions to actions, and deliver results. She’s held a variety of positions at BTS, including senior consultant.

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