Advice From A Nice Girl: How Do I Encourage My Coworkers To Speak Up In Meetings?

Illustrated by Hannah Minn.
Welcome to Refinery29’s career column Advice From A Nice Girl. Every month, readers can ask Fran Hauser, bona fide boss and author of the book The Myth Of The Nice Girl, about their hardest career quandaries, from managing an overly emotional boss to overcoming their biggest work fear. But this advice column comes with a twist — the reader has to take Fran’s advice and report back.
This month, we hear from a 32-year-old L.A.-based creative director who is trying to encourage more people to speak up in meetings.
Question: I work in an environment where the same few people contribute ideas in team meetings and others are afraid to share their opinions, as they feel they will be unfairly judged. How can I help create a culture where more people feel comfortable contributing? Can you share some tips on how to best do this as both a leader and a colleague?
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Fran's Advice: You’ve hit on one of the most important, yet often hard to measure, features of a strong workplace culture: Employees feeling comfortable to be who they are and to share what they think without fearing potential backlash. Creating an environment where employees feel psychologically safe to contribute has benefits well beyond personal satisfaction, too — it can boost creativity and the bottom line. Teams that work well together have been shown to be less distracted, more productive, better ideators and problem solvers, and in general just great employees.
So what’s the secret to building this culture? In 2012, Google kicked off a quest to figure out what makes the perfect team: Is it having people from similar backgrounds? Similar work styles? A random mix? The smartest people together? In the end, their thorough research showed that “the ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.’’ It wasn’t about who stuck to goals better, chatted more, or kept the team on track. Instead, the most successful teams shared behaviors like taking turns in conversations and showing empathy for others — both factors that led to an unspoken feeling of psychological safety. That environment allowed teams to bond, respect one another and their ideas more, and be motivated to get the best results possible...together.
As a leader or colleague, you can do four things to build a psychologically safe culture:
1. Be respectful of other people’s opinions, especially when they differ from yours. Say things like, “I really like that perspective…” And encourage everyone to speak up. If there is someone on your team who has a hard time contributing in meetings, call on them, but prep them ahead of time! I had a boss who would call me before a meeting and say, “Fran, in today’s meeting, I am going to ask you to give everyone an update on the restructuring.” This gave me time to prepare my thoughts and contribute in a way that felt comfortable to me. Before long, it became natural to speak up, and I didn’t need a prompt.
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2. Be curious. Promoting curiosity and asking questions leads to inclusivity, because it shows your team that it’s okay to not have all the answers. There is power in saying “I don’t know,” and it eliminates the feeling that everyone has to be the smartest person in the room. A psychologically safe culture promotes behaviors like genuinely wanting to learn, and a big part of learning is listening to what others have to say. You can do this by modeling the behavior yourself — asking questions and admitting you’d love to know more about a subject. You could also create structure around this by having every member on your team share a lesson or insight on something monthly. This could be something big (the secrets to the best email marketing campaigns) or even small (Google Docs keyboard shortcuts you need to know).
3. Have an abundance mentality. This means being confident that there are enough opportunities to go around — just because someone wins doesn’t mean that you lose. Being competitive is not a bad thing, per se, but a competitive environment, where winner takes all, is not a psychologically safe environment. Celebrate everyone’s wins and failures, too, to show that work, like life, will have ups and downs for all. Recently, a member of my team took a big risk that didn’t have a successful outcome. I acknowledged at a group meeting how proud I was that she aimed high and, as a group, we shared learnings from the experience. These difficult moments can actually bring teams closer together.
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4. Social awareness. I was at a networking event recently, and I noticed a few people huddled together. Two of them were hogging the conversation, and another person was not engaged at all. Open your eyes and hearts and be aware when that is happening. Be the one to draw that person in. As a manager, you can probably suss out enough of the inner workings of your team — who is friends with whom, who seems to be more of a loner. When a project comes up, assign two people to it who perhaps aren’t as close to give them a chance to get to know each other better. Also, make it a point to understand how everyone on your team likes to work — some are quick thinkers, others may need more time to prepare. Create opportunities for both work styles to contribute, like providing brainstorming topics ahead of time and asking people to come to the meeting with ideas.
And most of all, if you are leading a team, make it clear that these values are important to you. When you are kicking off a project or initiative, don’t just talk about quantifiable success metrics (revenue, usage), but also talk about how you expect people to work on the team. It’s the perfect opportunity to be explicit and share expectations.
Tune in next month to hear back from our creative director and see how she fared in helping her colleagues share their ideas in meetings.
Curious how last month's first-time manager fared during her year-end reviews? She wrote: Okay, I was really nervous, but I did it. It was really helpful to have words to start the conversation. I started it by saying, "I'm your biggest champion and want to do everything I can to help you be successful." This was a positive way to start the conversation and set the right tone. I felt good energy from him when I said that. I also kept going back to the comment you made about being both kind and direct. I was direct in communicating what he needs to work on but said it in a way that wasn't threatening. There were two key areas for improvement, and together we came up with next steps (and the specific role that I am going to play in helping him) and agreed to check in at the end of February. It's a huge relief to have this done! Also, one thing I would add is that I practiced exactly what I was going to say, and that gave me more confidence going into the conversation.
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