People are quiet in meetings because they can't think of any content to offer. Suggesting solutions is the only form of contribution they recognize. Why not contribute as a catalyst instead?
When people discuss an issue in a meeting, they strive to offer their own solutions. They focus on the content under discussion, ignoring the process the group is using to reach a decision.
Why such a narrow focus on content? Well, we want to stand out, make a difference and be recognized as a source of good ideas. But, if we want to be team players, why the attention-seeking and self-serving drive to be the hero?
Even quieter participants are plagued by the same heroic mindset. Despite not saying much, they're only interested in being solution generators. Some even say that facilitating or acting as a catalyst just doesn't feel like doing "real work."
And who can blame them. Organizations lavish all the rewards on their top solution generators as sure as sports teams pay the most money for top goal scorers. Think of politicians campaigning for election. They talk long and loud to convince the electorate that their solutions are better than their competitors. Executives also get promoted by convincing stakeholders that they have a more compelling vision for the organization's future than anyone else.
This attention-seeking, self-serving work style is reinforced by the organization but to the detriment of less vocal employees who might actually have better ideas or at least more to contribute than is realized.
The play-to-your-strengths mantra also encourages people to be solution generators. Most employees pride themselves on their professional expertise and their ability to solve problems. Playing to this strength is understandable at junior levels but a more facilitative, engaging style is invaluable in a team context and essential for managers.
If the main responsibility of managers is to maximize the potential of their employees, then they are massively failing to do so by retaining their solution-generating preference long past their sell-by date. Because so much work today is mental – problem solving, creative thinking – managers should be asking "What do you think?" much more often in order to engage and develop people, to foster wider ownership and commitment.
Contributing as a Catalyst
A catalyst or facilitator contributes to a meeting by asking questions designed to stimulate others to think. Catalysts focus on the content by drawing solutions out of others rather than always promoting their own ideas. They also focus on process at two levels. There is the process of making a decision regarding the issue under discussion and the processes the team uses to maximize its effectiveness as a team.
Here are some examples of questions that a catalyst might ask to stimulate deeper thinking about the content under discussion:
- Mary, your proposal has at least 3 great benefits (A, B & C), what others can you think of?
- Can anyone else see any other benefits?
- What do you see as the downsides or risks of your proposal Mary?
- Can anyone else think of any downsides?
- What options can anyone think of to Mary's proposal?
- What are the pros and cons of those options?
- What is the potential impact of your proposal on X, Y or Z? (the bottom line, other departments, customers, other products, etc.)
- Who else could help us ensure that we're not overlooking something?
- What are the costs of implementing your proposal?
- What obstacles do you foresee and how do you propose addressing them?
All of these questions are variations on "What do you think?" They ask for opinions, not facts. By contrast, solution generators ask questions only to gather data so they can make their own decisions.
Process Facilitation at the Issue Level
Here are examples of the sorts of questions a catalyst might ask to stimulate thinking around the process of making a good decision?
- What sorts of decision criteria would help us make a good decision on this issue?
- Who are our main stakeholders in this issue? What are their needs?
- What are we really trying to achieve with this issue?
- What sort of output do we want to leave this meeting with?
- Why is this issue so important?
- What other information or inputs would help us make the best possible decision?
- What further research would help us make a better decision?
- What hidden agendas or political dimensions need addressing?
Process Facilitation at the Team Level
Some questions to facilitate better teamwork:
- How can we ensure that everyone with a view on this issue is fully heard?
- What process should we use to resolve conflict?
- How can we ensure that we don't rule out options too quickly?
- How can we manage implementation of our decision to be sure it happens?
- How often and by what means should we communicate and update each other?
- What success criteria or values would help us function well as a team?
- How should we measure whether we are living up to our agreed team values?
- How are we going to recognize excellent teamwork on the part of each team member? How can we be sure to recognize facilitative efforts and not just solution generation?
Of course all of these process facilitation questions should be followed up by similar questions to those listed for content facilitation. That is, when someone makes a process suggestion, you could affirm the positives but then ask for downsides and what suggestions others can make, etc.
To the extent that success depends on effective teamwork and full collaboration, it's self-defeating to hold debates where everyone is jockeying to "win" the argument, to be seen as the hero. Such a mindset not only drowns out the quieter types, it encourages a "win at all cost" mentality.
There is no doubt that we have a tendency to say whatever it takes to win an argument, including ignoring facts and discounting everyone else's proposal. It is well known that we make up our minds and then actively seek evidence to justify our views while ignoring counterevidence. This way of working is hardly a recipe for good decision-making, never mind productive teamwork.
In addition, we talk a lot about the values of humility, selflessness and serving others, yet we don't practice what we preach. Instead, we argue our stance as if our lives depended on winning. If we genuinely put the needs of the organization first, we would place more emphasis on being a catalyst or facilitator and less on being a solution generator.
It may help to keep Marshall Goldsmith's findings in mind. In his book What Got You Here, Won't Get You There, he noted that all of the bad habits he sees in the executives he coaches boil down to one major bad habit: having too strong a need to be right and to win.
See How to be More Effective at Work on how to balance self-reliance and interdependence.
See also: Engage Yourself, Should You Always Play to Your Strengths?, The Post-heroic Manager, How's Your Confidence Today?, Cultures of Disengagement, How To Be An Engaging Manager. Also Collaborative Assertiveness.