The loudest voice isn’t the most valuable

Every now and again, I come across the same line of advice.

Speak up. Lean in. Take charge. Be more assertive.

It’s used in many different contexts, although perhaps most notably as a reprimand or encouragement aimed at women in tech. And while I’ll spare you a magnum opus on whether or not women actually need or want to hear this advice*, there’s something that has really bothered me about it:

Isn’t it strange to put so much importance on a personality trait that has so little to do with the creation of value?

Have you ever followed that one mate who always pretends to know where they’re going? Then you’re painfully aware that when someone looks like they know what they’re doing, it doesn’t guarantee they’re actually any good at it. Just because someone can “sell sand in Sahara” doesn’t mean it’s a good business proposition. The ability to argue for an opinion or idea doesn’t automatically come with the ability to come up with good ones — or even the ability to judge if they’re any good.

But still we keep spouting this nonsense advice, reinforcing the notion that assertive people are the only ones that should and will be listened to. Because of this, we overvalue the opinions and ideas of the loudest voice, without pausing to think if it’s the most suited to give one.

This might be an issue in a lot of industries — but in design it’s a disaster. Designers that adapt a product for a loud user segment can ruin it for a silent majority. Terrible ideas can be pushed through just because someone charismatic is behind them. The most valuable insights might be lost because quiet individuals don’t get a chance to communicate.

Maybe, just maybe, we should stop acting like the problem is that not all people are assertive extroverts. Maybe we should acknowledge the other problem — we’re all terrible at listening. Maybe the world would be a better place if this was the unsolicited advice being thrown left and right:

Listen. Lean back. Let go. Be more observant.

Obviously, this advice is almost exactly as useless as telling people to be more assertive. As you might have guessed, just telling people to be different isn’t really an effective way of changing who they are. However, becoming aware of this bias is enough to start tackling the problem. Instead of expecting individuals to change, maybe we can change how they interact?

Meetings and group activities are a classic breeding ground for having a handful of people dominate the conversation. By making small changes in how you run group activities, you can bypass the assertiveness bias and balance out the contribution of ideas. Here are a couple of tricks we’ve found useful:

Method 1. Work alone, then take turns

  • After defining the topic you need to discuss, have everyone write down their thoughts about it on post it notes.
  • Structure is really helpful here. Define clearly what you want thoughts on and how many notes each person should write. For examples, in a retrospective we ask for 3 positives, 3 negatives, and 3 improvements.
  • Everyone writes alone — no peeking!
  • Take turns presenting the notes to the group, clustering similar ones on a whiteboard as you go.
  • Once themes have been identified, you can discuss each cluster in more detail. Have someone take on a facilitating role and make sure each cluster/note is discussed.

This method prevents people from being influenced by each other when they are deciding what’s most important to them. By doing it in written form and having everyone present, introvert members are more likely to speak up, and extrovert members more likely to keep it short.

Method 2. Feedback like Facebook

  • The person receiving feedback (the presenter) clearly defines what they need feedback on and what kind of feedback is most useful to them. This includes saying what feedback they dont want.
  • All feedback is given in the form of questions. The presenter gets a chance to answer each question, ask a counter question, or note down the question for later if there’s something they can’t answer during the session.
  • The group takes turns giving feedback. A facilitator helps keep the feedback session on track.

This method puts more power in the hands of the presenter, making sure they get feedback that actually helps them. Asking questions instead of giving opinions on things means that the conversation becomes less about the person giving feedback and more about the work — which helps balance out differences in how convincing different people are.

Check out this amazing article by Tanner Christensen for a more in-depth description of what makes a good feedback session.

Method 3. Judge ideas anonymously

  • Decide on a shared format to show your ideas. For example, following the sprint method of sketches to storyboard, presenting via film or a “one sentence pitch” are all good ways of showing an idea.
  • Have everyone work on it individually for the same amount of time. Tell people not to write their name on anything
  • Create a “gallery” of ideas, by pasting them on the wall or creating a presentation/playlist. (If a presentation, one person will be a facilitator and the only one who knows the person behind the idea. It’s usually better if they don’t vote)
  • After everyone has seen all the ideas, have them write down what they like about each idea. (If they’re on a wall, you can then let them mark out the things they like with a “heat map”
  • Once the voting is done, discuss what everyone liked most about each idea, and why they liked it. During the discussions the author can clarify what they meant, but it shouldn’t be a “pitch” of the idea.

It’s easy to become biased about an idea depending on who has come up with it, or by how convincingly it’s presented. By removing the author from the idea, the idea has to stand on it’s own, not propped up or diminished by the person presenting it.

Method 4. Be a gracious designer

Remember how I said telling people how they should be is stupid? Well…I’m just going to go ahead and do that now. Whether it’s yourself, your team, your clients or your user, try to be aware of how this bias can influence your work, and make a conscious effort to counteract it.

  • Is one person taking over a discussion? Make sure to check up on other participants afterwards to see if there was something they never got the chance to say.
  • Did you convince your team and clients to go with your idea? Make sure that it’s really the best idea, and not because you got carried away with convincing them.
  • Did you get super excited about an idea someone else presented? Think critically about why you liked it — was it the person or the actual idea? Sleep on it and check up on any claims or assumptions that were made in the presentation.
  • Are you conducting user interviews? Make sure that your interviewees are comfortable. If someone seems quiet or shy, try to understand how you can get more out of them. Often, getting them to chat about a subject they like is a great way to make someone open up.

Obviously, I’m not saying that all people that we’d traditionally value for their assertiveness are boisterous assholes with shitty ideas. The problem isn’t the individuals themselves, but the culture of equating eloquence with excellence. By being aware of that bias, and introducing more diverse ways for your teammates to express themselves, you’ll create a more balanced playing field — with better ideas and better collaboration as a result.

Do you have any other suggestions for methods that improve working together? Let me know in the comments below!

*If you remember my magnum opus comment, it would probably just be a million of these anyway → 🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄

I work as a UX Designer at Apegroup where I help companies create beautiful digital things. We are a digital product studio in Stockholm. Want to know more about how we work with design? Read more at our website.

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