Description: Team members are not communicating openly, equally, or clearly. Or, stakeholders complain they are not getting information they need from the team when or how needed. This topic is divided by problem types. Note that many communication issues are symptoms of deeper issues, like the lack of a formal team structure or work management methods.
- Individuals Do Not Speak Up
- Individuals Dominate Discussions
- Frequent Miscommunications
- Stakeholder Complaints
A “catch phrase” can be used to capture the attention of the listener and convey a special meaning. In this case, you can use the phrase to indicate a communication issue is showing itself in that moment and trigger steps to diffuse it. Have the team come up with a catch phrase and procedure that addresses the specific problem you are seeing.
For example, one company used “FOH” (pronounced “fuh”) as in, “I need to be FOH with you.” It stood for, “Frank, Open, and Honest.” The other person understood they were to stop talking and listen with an open mind to what was coming next.
- In a team meeting, use the Basic Method at the top of “Solution Creativity” to define the communication issue you are seeing.
- Agree on a fun catch phrase that relates to the issue.
Note: If needed, use techniques under “Solution Creativity” and “Decision-Making.”
- Adapt the following procedure as desired and add it to your Team Charter:
- If a team member wants to discuss an issue without [the problem from Step 1], the member should say “[catch phrase].”
Example: “If a team member wants to discuss an issue without the other person interrupting, the speaker will say, ‘I need the soap box.’”
- The other member will [desired behavior].
Example: “The other member will practice active listening until the speaker says they are done.”
- If the listener feels they cannot discuss the subject as called for, or the speaker feels the listener is not doing so, that person will say, “I think we need mediation.”
- The members will follow the team’s mediation procedure.
- If a team member wants to discuss an issue without [the problem from Step 1], the member should say “[catch phrase].”
This technique should be performed by someone not regularly involved with the team, such as another manager or a human resources representative.
- Observe a meeting or two and:
- Determine whether all members who do speak are listened to.
- Determine whether disagreements are focusing on behaviors, not personalities or bad motives, and are resolved appropriately.
- Note whether the words used are appropriate.
Example: Do you hear stereotyping, or a few people cursing much more than others?
- Record other possible reasons.
- Conduct interviews:
- In private, one-on-one meetings with quiet members, promise confidentiality and then ask why they are quiet.
- Summarize the information and report back to the team without naming names, asking it to address the causes.
Potential causes include:
- The quiet members defer to an expert, not remembering “that even the best experts retain individual biases which can render flawed solutions.” Experts may be less likely to see innovative solutions than someone with an outside perspective and/or different background.
- Trying to determine the best solution among several good ones is difficult, so quiet members accept the easiest option to get the decision made.
- They are newcomers, and stay quiet either because they are trying to fit in or are unfamiliar with the problem. Point out that outsiders’ questions can lead to new avenues of discussion.
- They lack confidence, perhaps indicating a need for more job or interpersonal training and coaching.
- The team is pressuring people to conform, a sign of team loyalty going too far (see “Groupthink”).
- The typical confusion at team/project start-up or at a stagnation point has driven some people to give up.
- The team is making decisions without allowing introverts time to think them through. Propose a catch phrase introverts can use to delay a final decision without saying more at that moment (see the previous technique).
- They are waiting until they think they have something substantial to say. In that case, ask if they would be willing to share their thoughts earlier—to “think out loud”—and what the team must change before they could do that comfortably.
- Ask a quiet team member to take on the role of “Devil’s Advocate,” posing questions an outsider might ask, such as:
- “Does this conflict with the team code of __?”
- “How will we respond if (‘our manager’ or ‘the customer’) says __?”
- “What are our other options?”
- Ask the team to notify you of the changes it makes.
- After a month, repeat Step 1 and perhaps Step 2 to check progress and report your findings to the team and manager.
This system of nonverbal communication may help silent members ease into becoming more involved. If a significant number of members are holding back, voting by this means rather than consensus-building may be necessary to assure that an apparent consensus is not mere accommodation or groupthink.
- Color note cards green, blue, yellow, and red, making one set for each team member.
- In the next meeting, explain what they mean as shown in the table below and write reminders on the board.
- During discussions, ask member to keep the cards out of sight when not in use, to prevent their use as side conversations.
- When discussion on an issue winds down or people start repeating themselves, vote on whether to hold a decision-making vote by asking people to hold up their cards all at once, basing their choice on the middle column of the table above.
Note: Emphasize that you will hold a revote, and then do it, if:
- Anyone hesitates, looking to see how other people vote before doing so themselves.
- Anyone does not vote.
- Once a decision-making vote is approved, hold it using the third column of the table above and the rules in the note above.
- Set an action item to implement the decision.
|Color||During Discussion||During Vote|
|Green||Ready to Vote||Agree|
|Blue||Want to Speak||Neutral|
|Yellow||To a Subteam/Need More Info||Can Support|
|Red||Needs More Discussion||Disagree|
- Create a team bulletin board, real or virtual, on which members are allowed to post anonymous comments about issues.
- Establish a team procedure by which a member selected by the team—in a permanent or a rotating role—moderates the bulletin board.
Note: Include a rule that any communications will be removed if they:
- Include statements about individual team members.
- Appear to be personal attacks, on individuals or on the team as a whole.
- Have the moderator contact the current facilitator about any postings relevant to old issues or that could be new issues, for inclusion on the next meeting agenda.
- Help the team define the issue as a series of open-ended questions (questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”).
- Write them across the top of the board or on separate sticky notes across the top of a wall.
- Provide large sticky notes to everyone.
- Say, “I would like you to write down your thoughts on these questions, one question at a time. Please make sure your thought falls into one of three categories: a fact, a comment, or an idea. Notice that I’m not asking for ‘answers’—just facts, comments, or ideas. Please write one thought per sticky note.”
- Read off the first question, and allow several minutes for the work.
- When the time is up, say: “Please go up and post your thoughts. I need everyone to get up; please do not ask someone else to put yours up for you unless you are physically unable to.”
- This is intended to induce some discomfort in those reluctant to write down their thoughts, because it will be physically obvious that they are not participating.
- Of course, make exceptions for anyone physically unable to get up, but make sure they contribute a note for each question.
- Repeat the process for each question.
- When done, say: “Everyone please walk around and read the thoughts. I suggest you take your writing pads so you can make note of any thoughts you have questions about. At this point, though, the questions should relate only to thoughts that are not clear to you or you want more information about. Do not question the merits of the thoughts yet.”
- Have people ask their questions and allow the writers of the related thoughts to respond.
Note: Again, do not allow discussion of the merits of the points; just get the questions answered.
- Combine the thoughts for each posted question into comprehensive answers.
Note: It does not matter whether the answers make a lot of sense; the point is to encourage participation and stimulate the group’s thinking about the issue.
- Continue with the team’s normal problem-solving process, or choose a new technique.
- Temporary Rules—In a meeting, say: “It appears to me that we are not getting to hear from everyone. Let’s institute a temporary rule change to open up the discussion a bit.” Rules to try include:
- Five minutes total: “Members can only speak a total of five minutes on a given topic.”
- Speaking breaks: “After you have talked, you must wait for two other people to speak before you can speak again.”
- Frequently have people break off into twos or threes to discuss the issue and then bring their ideas to the table as a group.
- For the team manager: Talk to the dominant individual(s) privately and tell them your perception is that not everyone is participating. Ask for their ideas. If they do not suggest this, ask them to solicit the opinions of quiet team members by name.
- Review with the team information on active listening skills:
- Keep your eyes on each speaker.
- Nod, smile, and make brief comments to show you are listening.
- Focus your thoughts on what each speaker says: do not allow your mind to wander or start forming a response before the speaker is finished.
- Make sure you understand what each speaker says; if there is any question, repeat back what the speaker said using your own words and ask if that is correct.
- Arrange for the team to take a course on active listening.
Create a team rule or procedure by which people meeting for any reason always follow up that meeting with a brief note or e-mail outlining what they agreed upon.
Note: These steps are addressed to the facilitator.
- Get a large-sized box with a lid (the kind copier paper comes in is perfect).
- Get one each of 20 items: office supplies, toys, candy, etc.
- Write on a piece of paper for yourself a list of everything that is in the box.
- Put the box on a table in a way that someone must stand over it to see inside when the lid is off.
- Make sure everyone on the team has note paper.
Lead the Exercise
- Say: “It is hard to understand how people come up with such different perspectives on things, and of course, we always think our perspective is the right one—that is only human. But in a team, you have to learn to accept that other perspectives are both normal and valid. So we are going to play a game that will help with that. I’m going to have you come up one at a time and look in this box for ten seconds. Then I want you to go back to your seat and write down what you saw. Do not tell anyone what you saw or let them see what you write.”
Note: Do not specify that people write a “list,” and refuse to specify what kinds of information they should be writing. The exercise is enhanced if some people write lists and others write general descriptions.
- Run the exercise.
- Go around the room and have each person read aloud what they wrote.
- When done, open the box and let people look as desired while you read your list of the items in the box.
- Lead a discussion comparing and contrasting what people came up with.
- Say: “Notice that everybody was right in what they said, as far as they went. That is very important to understand. Ten seconds was not very long. But is looking at an issue with many complexities and people involved, especially under a deadline, really all that different from this exercise? In fact, this was probably easier, since the objects are very tangible. The items that catch our eyes, the ways we choose to present them and the nature of our observations—specific lists versus general descriptions, for example—are products of nature and nurture that are not entirely under our control. It is very important to acknowledge this when you have trouble communicating with someone else. Other people cannot help the way they hear things initially any more than you can, so try to work around that by asking questions and paraphrasing back to ensure you have communicated accurately.”
If any stakeholders complain they are not getting needed information:
- If you do not have a Communications Plan, create one covering those stakeholders, if not all.
- If you do, conduct a review of your plan with the stakeholders.
- Jointly create action items for addressing the problems identified in the review.
- After the action items are completed, provide a short report to the stakeholders on what was done (one page at most).
- Schedule a follow-up review for one month later, and repeat steps 2–4.
- Create action items to schedule reviews for three months later, six months later, and annually after that.
Full citations for the footnotes are here.
 Crowe 1999.