I told my coworkers what I really thought, here’s what happened

Natalie Mendes
Mar 23, 2017 · 6 min read

To the casual observer, the meeting seemed ordinary enough. A group of people assembled in a conference room, discussing something. But for me, seated round the table with my team, this meeting was about to change everything I thought about my career.

I had been in meetings like this at previous jobs. The team gets together to discuss the status of a project, how it’s going, and what to do next. Usually the manager takes the lead collecting status reports from each team member, and then doles out tasks.

But this time, it was different. The person leading the meeting wasn’t my manager at all, he wasn’t even on my team! He had a series of questions in front of him, and explained that we were there to talk about how our project was going, and determine which areas we could improve.

And that’s when it happened, the moderator turned to me and asked that simple question that changed it all:

What do you think?

I was caught completely off guard. “What do you think?” had typically been a loaded question, where answers were predicated upon how closely they aligned with the responses of everyone else in the room (especially the manager). Tight-lipped, I scanned the room trying to figure out if this was a trick question.

I struggled with what to say among the attentive faces staring back at me. How could I give an answer that everyone would agree with? What did I think my other teammates would say? How could I be honest enough for everyone to still like me even if they disagreed with me? I was stuck.

But the meeting moderator defused my doubt. “There are no wrong answers here. We do this to get everyone’s true opinions on how the project is going. No one is going to be offended, no one has any expectations. We are here for the benefit of the team as a whole.”

And that was the beauty of the meeting. Everyone was invited to share their thoughts, opinions, and experiences equally. Titles and seniority were shed for the benefit of the ideas presented. And people listened to each other, accepted feedback openly, and discussed improvements collaboratively.

Not rejected for speaking up

You see, we had created something called “psychological safety”. It’s characteristic of a group culture described by Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmondson, as:

“a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up… a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

In other words: you can say what you mean and mean what you say.

It was a phenomenon I hadn’t experienced before in other jobs. Managers hadn’t really asked my opinion, and if they had, a certain answer was expected in return. I had mastered the art of hiding in plain sight, of holding back my ideas in an effort of self-preservation. And it was exhausting and demotivating.

In fact, not feeling empowered at work is one of the top reasons talented people leave their jobs. No one asks for their opinion, no one cares what they think, no one considers the unique perspective they can contribute. And attrition rates at companies, most of all tech, run high.

Could it be that managers are left scratching their heads wondering why they can’t keep top talent, when all along, all they had to do was ask their people what they think?

Innovative teams talk

Google has long studied workplace happiness and productivity. After many years of research, they found that on high-performing teams people spoke in roughly the same proportion, what researchers call, “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking”. Teams that came up with the most innovative solutions were the ones in which everyone got a chance to talk.

And that’s what we were doing with the Health Monitor, my team’s term for this most extraordinary meeting I was in. We were leveling the playing field and extracting the insight, opinions, and perspectives of everyone involved. And it changed the way I approached everything: my work, my team, and myself.

I felt confidence where I hadn’t before: to be honest, to trust my instincts, and own my expertise. It consoled my people-pleasing tendencies to know that whatever I said would be taken neutrally and without judgment. To learn that my team wanted to hear my opinion made me feel valued and included.

I left the meeting feeling great — my team was on my side and I was on theirs! We were all convinced that no matter where we stood, we’d all work together.

Since then, that team has been the most unified of any I’ve been on. And, we’re really proud of the work we’ve done. We’re not perfect, but we’re committed to improvement. And having more meetings like the Health Monitor.

Try a Health Monitor with your team

Running a Health Monitor may not come naturally to your team and your style of working. It certainly didn’t for me at first. But, here are some basic principles I’d recommend to make your session a success:

  • Honesty. Health Monitors don’t work if everyone puts on a happy face. And yes, giving honest feedback to the group puts you in a vulnerable position, but it’s essential to bring these issues to light. You may be the only one reporting negatively in a certain area, but you just have to own it. Perhaps you will be the only one to bring up an important topic that no one else has noticed. Or maybe you will be able to get clarification on something that you had misunderstood. Either way, a commitment to honesty requires this next thing…

So, I end this post with the same question to you: “What do you think?” Are you ready to let your team hear your voice?

The Health Monitor is an exercise used by all kinds of teams at Atlassian to assess their overall project and team health. We love it so much we’ve turned it into an online resource all teams can access and do on their own. Check out the Health Monitor

If you enjoyed this piece, please give it a ❤ and follow our publication, Smells Like Team Spirit for all things teamwork and collaboration.

Originally published at Atlassian Blogs.

Smells Like Team Spirit

Solving for teamwork, one story at a time.

Natalie Mendes

Written by

Editor of Smells Like Team Spirit, an Atlassian publication dedicated to solving for teamwork, one story at a time

Smells Like Team Spirit

Solving for teamwork, one story at a time.

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