Lack of Engagement is a Culture Problem

Dan Kim’s article “Don’t overlook the quiet voices and contributions” caught my attention. In it, he laments colleagues speaking loudly, repeating ideas, and generally filling time in meetings. He suggests this type of communication is rewarded, while quiet voices and their contributions are being completely ignored. He goes on to offer a list of tips to leaders who might be overlooking quiet contributors.

I am a leader and people manager, so I suppose he might be offering his tips to me. I am also a quiet voice. My tendency is to carefully observe conversations and speak only when I feel I have something important to add. I have always been this way. It is part of who I am. When I have something to say, it’s usually something I have thought deeply about. So I completely agree with Dan when he suggests that quiet voices are important. However, I believe he missed the mark a little bit in his evaluation and suggestions.

Your Team is Thinking

Before I address Dan’s tips I need to talk about teams and how they function. Throughout my career, my mental model of teams has been shaped by learning about team dynamics, agile processes, and most recently, swarm intelligence.

Swarm intelligence (SI) is the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial. -Wikipedia

I believe that a team, like a swarm of honey bees or a colony of ants, can be described as having a mind, and can display intelligent behavior that emerges from more simple patterns of interaction between its members. In other words, your team is thinking, and it does so by sharing ideas.

This brings me to Dan’s first tip, that leaders should “Encourage writing as the preferred medium to share ideas.” The trouble with this idea is that writing is a low-bandwidth method of communication. (Alistair Cockburn does a great job of explaining communication bandwidth.) If it is true that a team is thinking when it’s members communicate, then limiting communication to writing, or preferring writing, is artificially limiting the team’s ability to think. This is not to say that written communication is bad, just that a preference toward written communication seems like the wrong choice if your goal as a leader is to help your team think clearly, effectively, and quickly.

To be more precise, there are ways that writing is a great strategy, and can be used effectively to amplify quiet voices in face-to-face collaborations. For example, in preparation for a meeting, a leader might ask each team member to think about and write down some ideas to share in advance or during the meeting. This provides the quiet thinkers with more space and time to consider their thoughts and craft their words, and sets the stage for them to elaborate when the team is face-to-face.

Dan’s second tip is “Don’t correlate being quiet in meetings with a lack of participation.” As a leader who is interested in helping my team think, if I observe a member of the team who says nothing in a meeting, by definition they are not participating or helping the team think (remember the team only thinks when its members are sharing ideas). I’m also fine with “instant reactions” because they reflect the true experience, expertise, and emotional state of team members. This is not to say that instant reactions are the only thing that should be considered. Preparation and deep thought are good. But I don’t agree that instant reactions are inherently bad.

Failure to Value Every Voice is a Culture Problem

Looking over the list of tips, I can see that Dan feels like it is the leader’s job to engage the quiet voices on their team. Remember that I’m a quiet voice, so I get it. But I don’t think that leaders simply engaging and understanding quiet voices one-on-one is the answer. Team culture is the answer.

As a leader, if your team doesn’t value the quiet voices, that is a culture problem. And culture problems are not easy to solve. Ultimately, what you want as a leader is a high functioning team. And if you buy my premise that a team thinks by communicating and sharing ideas, then it follows that engaging every brain on the team makes the team smarter. You want the quiet voices to be heard, and not just when you are there in the room.

You accomplish this through culture. Begin by engaging your team in a discussion about their values: asking, What type of team do they want to be? I have facilitated culture discussions with a half dozen engineering teams over the past few years and without exception they all value collaboration and hearing everyone’s thoughts. The key is to get them to take ownership of that value and to take action to live up to it.

Values can be identified by conducting culture discovery sessions, recording the resulting values in a document, and encouraging/leading quarterly retrospectives wherein the team holds themselves accountable for living up to their values. In those retro meetings the team can evaluate whether they have truly engaged the quiet voices and, if not, can create new practices to try to do better.

Done really well, this process results in a team that truly cares about hearing quiet voices. The team then develops their own processes and practices that “give people time and space to think”, and helps them “judge contributions by quality, not quantity.” The leader becomes just another part of the team, accountable for the processes and practices that the team has put in place to ensure quiet voices are heard, so being “privy to every bit of collaboration that’s happening” isn’t expected.

Coaching is Still Required

Dan’s second to last tip is to “ask for opinions individually.” As a quiet voice I’m totally on board with this tip. One of my primary resposibilities as a leader and people manager is to coach my team. Helping the quiet voices see the value in sharing their thoughts in team discussions is important. Letting them know how I’m addressing team culture and the role I expect them to play serves to encourage them to take the risk. Coaching the “big talkers” is also important. The team isn’t at full strength unless those big talkers help find a way to get everyone’s thoughts on the table.

Small Teams are Better

Finally, Dan suggests “avoid(ing) large group-think sessions.” I’m on board with this tip as well. It is hard enough for a small team (especially of engineers) to pay attention to each other, to respond to not just words, but facial expressions, body language, and other visual cues. I’m a fan of the two-pizza team and have seen too many groups of 10+ with their laptops all open barely paying attention to each other. That is an example of a team that doesn’t think.

Culture and Coaching

I love that Dan wrote about the importance of engaging quiet voices. They are just as important as any other part of a team. But I don’t think they are more important than the “big talkers.” They are just unique, different.

My primary tip is to focus on team culture. Cultivate a culture of inclusion, so that it is everyone’s responsibility to bring out all the voices. Create a team where everyone’s voice is valued: a team that truly thinks on it’s own.


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