Recently I was talking with a colleague and he mentioned he’d been scrolling through Instagram and came across a reel where the late Steve Jobs was talking about the importance of managers/leaders giving space for employees to ask questions and share ideas. Lately I’ve been helping my 2nd grade daughter with her sentence structure homework, so I asked myself, “What’s the subject of this sentence?” The subject is space. Equally important is the verb give. I asked my colleague what he does to give space to his employees. He replied, “That’s a good question!” I’ve often been in meetings where a manager asks, “Does anyone have any questions?” Usually nobody says anything and the meeting ends. Oftentimes the manager will prompt again, “I’m sure someone has a question. Are there really no questions?” This is usually met with more silence.
Are we giving our employees space to ask questions and share ideas? And when we open up a meeting with this intent, are we really interested and willing to listen to what’s offered? Silence is not golden. From my experience, I feel that three things are going on when there’s silence.
- People don’t trust that it is a safe space to ask questions and share ideas. From past experience they may have tried and felt shut down or marginalized or not appreciated for speaking up. They may feel that even though the opportunity is there, they won’t really felt heard or listened to. The meeting leader may already be checking phones, emails and thinking about the next meeting.
- Some meetings are more about information sharing and updates and there may be enough understanding and clarity that people really don’t have questions. Or they may need time to digest the information before they can ask questions or offer feedback. More on that in a moment.
- Employees may not be fully engaged or invested enough in their work to want to ask questions. They don’t see how their work is affected one way or the other, so they simply don’t care much about what’s being said. The first and third scenarios should be red flags to team leaders and managers.
I challenged my colleague to devote extra time in his next meeting toquestions, ideas or observations. I encouraged him to not let the meeting end until someone responds. He looked at me a little skeptically. When asked who he thought would be the first to respond, knowing his staff well he offered some thoughts. I asked him what he thought would result from encouraging questions, ideas and observations. He mentioned“getting on the same page,” less need for the “meeting after the meeting,” and “employees feeling more empowered to speak and share.” These are all positive benefits for any team to feel they have the space to speak up and have their voice heard.
I’d like to offer one more thought on giving space. I’ve conducted over 1,200 Clifton Strengthsfinder© assessments to state employees. One of the most represented theme areas is strategic thinking. These are strengths like analytical, futuristic, ideation, intellection — strengths we don’t always see because they take place in the head. These are individuals who need data, facts and information, which they use to look for patterns to solve problems or make improvements. They need time to think and plan and gather information. They need this mental space to leverage their strengths. Giving space for our thinking strengths to thrive on a team is necessary. My challenge to my colleague is worth trying with your teams. If you’d like a facilitator to help, feel welcome to reach out.