The Big Cost of Small Voices

Every team has dynamics; some will stand up while others stand back. Weak leaders let dynamics drive the conversation; transformational leaders level the playing field.

I work with teams all over the world facilitating business transformation and implementing change initiatives. Regardless of the engagement, whether I am consulting, training, or providing coaching, I am working with teams. Some teams are large, and some are small; some are corporate teams and some are project-based. But each team has a common goal: they want to win.

One of my first activities in every engagement is to sit back and observe the natural team dynamics. Only when you understand how the team works together can you empower the team to work better, together. I watch interactions, I listen to how people talk to each other, and I watch how decisions are made. Affecting change within a team requires contextual understanding; you can’t gain that by walking into a room and immediately commanding control and providing direction.

When sitting back and watching these interactions, without fail I almost always notice at least one team member sitting quietly. They look like they have something to say, but can’t seem to get a word in. Or, they are talked over when they begin sharing. Sometimes there are more team members being silenced than those actively participating; it is a dynamic that most leaders are familiar with, whether through experience or observation.

Regardless of the commonness of occurrence, the silence of those team members has a cost; if unchecked that cost can be fatal. Consider the team member that can’t seem to voice their concern over a critical safety issue; the result, if the risk remains unchecked, may be catastrophic.

The Cast

Every team is fundamentally different, but regardless of location or industry, all have similar characteristics. In a standard team meeting, these are the key cast members that you may encounter:

  • The Leader — The person who called the meeting and who may or may not drive the discussion.
  • The Dominator — Takes control of the meeting and does the majority of the talking.
  • The Agreer — Tends to go along with the overall consensus of the group, and doesn’t typically challenge the status quo (this is a common role).
  • The Fence Sitter — Is unable to make a decision or take a stance.
  • The Devil’s Advocate — Likes to challenge the status quo and suggest radical alternatives (these individuals tend to drive healthy conflict among team members).
  • The Distractor — Is entirely present in the conversation but tends to bring up irrelevant points that drive the conversation in whimsical directions.
  • The Negator — This team member has never come across an idea that they thought would work.
  • The Socially Distracted — Is present in the conversation, somewhere, likely on Twitter, Facebook or Snap Chat.
  • The Small Voice — Has a great deal to say, but cannot find the words or is repeatedly talked over.
  • The Disengaged — Would rather be anywhere else than in the meeting.

The cast will look different for each team. Some teams will have a few Dominators, while others will have more. Team members play roles, and a variety of roles are necessary for team cohesion. A team will never be comprised of only dominators long-term, as dominators tend to conflict with other dominators.

There are a few roles that are necessary within the cast above, while others clearly don’t add value. Dominators are great for driving conversation, while devil’s advocates are effective at challenging the position of the dominator. Team members will jump in and play their part, and through this interaction, the team will explore options, make decisions, and progress to the point of decision. However, this decision may be completely misguided without considering all available options.

Giving Everyone a Voice

It is a leader’s responsibility to ensure that all team members have a voice. It’s not the Dominator’s job to stop dominating. It’s not the Agreer’s job to stop agreeing. It’s the Leader’s job to level the playing field.

Think of a team project as a carefully designed building. Every team member has knowledge, skills, and experience that may contribute to the completion of a task. Some team members have more information and therefore bring large building components to the table, while other team members hold smaller pieces. Not one person at the table holds all of the pieces, nor does anyone know what all of the pieces look like. This is why we create high-performance teams in the first place; these individuals aggregate their contributions to create an output that is more advanced than could be produced by a single team member.

A small voice on your team may have only a small piece to contribute; in turn, they may be silenced by those who have more information or experience. However, bereft of that input, the resulting product may be wildly inaccurate. A few small missing foundations can cause an entire building to collapse and crumble under the right conditions.

It is a leader’s responsibility to give the small voices a platform to speak because those small pieces matter. If a team member cannot voice their concern, you may be building an unstable building. If that individual cannot share their innovative idea, you may move forward on a sub-optimal plan. When small voices are left unheard, the resulting failure is not the team’s failure; it’s a failure of leadership.

Team members will play the roles that they are comfortable with. Some will naturally dominate, while others will naturally withdraw. Not everyone can find the nerve to try to speak over the dominators, or stand up and voice a contrary opinion. As a leader, if you allow these small voices to go unheard, and unconsidered, you are not being effective in your role. It is not the fault of the Dominator for dominating; they are playing the role they are comfortable with. It is the fault of the leader for failing to provide an equally accessible platform for all team members. Small voices are suppressed by small leaders.

The Cost

The costs of small voices are many, including financial. If meaningful options are not considered, there is a potential for financial loss. Innovations may not be challenged and decisions may be made based on incomplete information. Organizations and teams have a vested interest in exploring meaningful alternatives to common solutions. Some of those alternatives will necessarily be presented by small voices.

Poor risk mitigation is another cost of silencing small voices. If risks go unidentified, and therefore unmitigated, the results can be catastrophic. In hazardous industries, silencing small voices can result in significant injuries or even fatalities.

The greatest cost of small voices is, ultimately, the loss of small voices. As small voices are silenced, those small voices lose their voice entirely. In some instances, these team members become aware that they cannot meaningfully affect change, so they stop trying. Alternatively, these individuals leave the team altogether and venture out to places where they may be supported as bigger voices. Either way, the loss to the team can be insurmountable.

The Solution

Small voices have great potential if enabled. Leaders must engage, encourage, and inspire those small voices to become big voices, which in turn will improve team dynamics and overall performance. Leaders may employ the following methods to encourage those small voices to speak up:

  • 2-minute relay — Each team member takes two minutes to concisely state their opinion on a topic. Participation is mandatory, and the 2 minutes is their stage (and their stage alone).
  • Debate style — Team members take opposing stances on a topic and explore the pros and cons of each approach.
  • Sticky note it — Each team member writes their idea on a sticky note and pastes it on a wall. The team votes on each option.
  • Online engagement — Some find their voices through online platforms. Message boards can facilitate more diverse conversation for those that fear speaking up in a meeting setting.

Giving small voices a platform to speak is imperative to the success of the team. Weak leaders suppress small voices; strong leaders turn mice into lions by giving them a megaphone. Which type of leader are you?

Woman in construction. Entrepreneur. Writer. Student; teacher. Probably jet lagged.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store