Are You Drowning Out Minority Voices?

You have a responsibility to amplify minority voices.

Posted Sep 18, 2013

Women being excluded from a team conversation

Healthy teams are diverse, dynamic groups who not only respect the different perspectives around the room, but they use them to get stuff done.  Recent research out of MIT has shown that effective teams balance the participation across members of the team. Teams with dominant members or "teams within the team" are much less effective. But teams that truly leverage their diversity are few and far between.  Instead, I see most teams drown out the minority voices and steamroll over any perspective that takes them off course or slows them down.

Commonly, dominant members of the team drown out the contribution of those with the minority perspectives. In the most innocuous cases, over-exuberant members engage in a volley of conversation and the less powerful voices can't get a word in edgewise. In its more insidious form, people with differing points of view are shut down with dismissive language such as "yeah, yeah, we've heard that before," or "you wouldn't understand."

At best, shutting out the minority voices will over-weight the status quo and sacrifice innovation. At worst, failing to listen to minority voices is a dangerous precursor to groupthink--when excessive group cohesiveness leads to a false sense of invulnerability and a disconnection from the world outside the team.

Pay attention in your next team meeting. Are there voices that are being drowned out on your team? Are team members taking up roughly the same amount of "space" in your meetings? Is your voice being heard and are you adding your full value?

As I wrote about in a previous post, strong team members add their full value. They go beyond their functional and technical expertise, beyond the boundaries of their roles, to add value that comes from previous experiences, their relationships, and their natural styles. But sometimes team members struggle to add their full value because their opinions are less popular, their perspectives are different, and their voices are drowned out.

The great news is that the author of the MIT study suggests that teams aren't destined to fail if they don't have it right at the outset. Instead, team members can learn new patterns that increase team effectiveness.

How?

As a member of a team, you have a responsibility, not only to add your full value, but to make sure that others can add theirs too. You need to "amplify other voices"; to help the team access the value that is not being brought out. You can do this in your next team meeting.

  1. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak. If not, use your "turn" to give the floor to someone who has not yet spoken. "Mary, we haven't heard from you and I'm curious how this issue is landing with you."
  2. Don't allow others to block out or brush off different points of view. If someone does belittle or downplay a comment, counteract their impact. "Actually, I think we haven't spent enough time talking about that. Mary, can you tell me more about that?"
  3. Use the agenda to assist you. Many teams I work with have a standing agenda where the same item (and usually the same person) gets short shrift at every meeting. Propose that the agenda order gets changed periodically so that the team has sufficient time to hear from everyone.
  4. Advanced Challenge: Use the above techniques in a situation where you disagree or are uncomfortable with what the person is saying. When you can "lean into" your discomfort with a minority point of view, you have really mastered the practice of amplifying other voices.

You are likely to find that loaning your credibility to a less powerful member of the team will create a lasting effect. Their confidence will increase and your support will become less necessary over time. Although the discussions will, at first, feel more difficult and more challenging, your team will benefit from the increased diversity of thought. You will see new opportunities to innovate. You will have a greater radar for risk. I’d love to hear your stories…use the comments section to thank someone who has helped you have an impact.