I Can’t Say That – She’s the Boss!

February 22, 2017 3:25 pm

At one time or another, most of us have experienced a leader sabotage the agenda, dominate the discussion, openly negate staff input – behaviours that effectively shut down staff from contributing. On the other hand, some of you have simply never had the chance to collaborate with upper management, so when confronted with the prospect, have no idea how to proceed, or fear intervening could result in a CLM (Career Limiting Move)! In both instances you may lack a model for how to effectively ensure it’s safe for staff to provide real input. Therefore it’s our job, when wearing the facilitator hat, to ensure staff feel safe and empowered to speak their minds. 

If you’re running the meeting and can determine who is invited to the meeting, one option may be to not invite the boss. Then there’s no threat of him/her inhibiting creativity or dominating the conversation. However, by doing this, you potentially deprive the group of its greatest ally. For one thing, management presence is important – they typically have organisational wisdom and may understand what will likely meet upper management approval if required. More importantly, bosses have influence – they can help the group swiftly achieve their goals in ways that other staff, with less access to resources, could not. Also, with the right level of engagement, the boss’ participation can be a powerful force for demonstrating commitment to the topics and role-modeling expected levels of participation.

Testing the Waters

The pre-existing dynamics between management and staff will determine the techniques a facilitator uses to run a successful session. The facilitator discovers these dynamics by running interviews and surveys with staff before the meeting. This way a facilitator can know ahead of the session if a boss tends to dominate conversation or steers debate. So dip a toe in or, even better, your whole foot, before you dive into the ocean of meeting dynamics.

Nip the Leaders’ Tendency to Dominate in the Bud!

Based on pre-meeting interviews and/or surveys; if you do discover a domineering boss, meet with him/her before the session to establish some ground rules. Politely clarify their desire for group collaboration. Explain how you plan to help the team reach decisions collaboratively. Overview your need for him/her to play the role of ‘equal’ team member and follow certain guidelines, meaning: not being the first to answer, hearing out other ideas before critiquing, asking clarifying questions before inserting his/her idea, etc. In order for the boss to be seen as empowering the team to speak its mind, it’s important that the boss agrees to following through on these behavioral guidelines before the session.

There are also bosses who are not necessarily domineering but are unaware of the inhibiting effect of their presence on staff. To mitigate this, work with him/her before the meeting to come up with some strategies that encourage a positive and open environment right off the bat.

For instance, she/he could…

  • Begin the meeting by explicitly ensuring people are clear and agree on the session purpose and outcomes that she/he are striving to achieve
  • During brainstorming, invite creative input and discussion without any critiquing
  • Establish safety norms for the meeting, such as confidentiality (e.g. nothing leaves the room) and potential fear of repercussion (e.g. all ideas during brainstorming are acceptable)
  • If problem-solving, ensure problems are concretely defined and understood before providing solutions
  • Share his/her ideas only after staff input has provided their input
  • Clearly discuss upfront any non-negotiables (e.g. what must be discussed), expert knowledge or new information, to ensure everyone is on the same page
  • Maintain an open environment by posing his/her ideas as questions rather than statements
  • Take on a more facilitative role, by encouraging the input of shy staff, summarizing comments, and posing questions that work to clarify and deepen staff input
  • Participate in both large and small group discussion formats; break the staff up into partners or smaller groups, use written brainstorming, make decisions using different types of voting, record ideas using flip charts, etc.
  • Attend only parts of the session: if there are sensitive topics where the boss’s presence might hinder free discussion, he/she can leave the room and then later return to listen to the group’s ideas. Or, engage the group in anonymous, written brainstorming to reinforce safety

Prep! Prep! And More Prep!

Bottom-line, it’s absolutely essential that you, the facilitator, take time to prep for a session involving leadership and staff. Once a design is created it’s equally important that you review the design with the client (if applicable) to get buy-in. A well-designed meeting that minimizes power dynamics requires pre-work and final client sign-off on the design.

What strategies have YOU used to minimize a leader’s negative impact on a meeting?

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