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The Science of Who Speaks in Team Meetings

What to do when no one is listening.

Key points

  • If you have been at a meeting and felt that no one is listening to you, the depressing news is you are probably right.
  • Like other primates, a group of humans establishes a relative status ranking.
  • Status ranking prevents people from speaking up in team meetings for social rather than business reasons.
Fizkes / Stock
Source: Fizkes / Stock

If you feel you are not being listened to in a team meeting, the sad truth is you are probably right. That does not mean there is nothing you can do about it. To exert influence in teams where you are not being heard, the first step is to understand how human brains conduct status rankings.

Status Ranking and Meeting Dynamics

When a group of people form a team, they look for a way to organize themselves. The process, described by Status Characteristics Theory, is a type of status ranking through which team members come to a (generally unspoken) consensus about who has a worthwhile contribution to make.1,2 The process may be conscious, but is often unconscious, and thus occurs whether or not participants are aware it is happening. There is a high degree of similarity in the relative rank that people silently assign to each other. The factors that drive perceived status rankings are also fairly consistent across cultures.3,4,5

The outcome of the ranking process has a profound effect on who wields influence in the group and who does not. The higher the commonly perceived status of a given attendee, the more the group will allow that person to speak. Higher-status members are also addressed more often, are looked at more often, and are less likely to be interrupted.6,7

If a low-status person attempts to speak more than is deemed appropriate for their status, members of the group will perceive that person as having spoken “too much.” This is true even when that person’s total speaking time is far less than that of others present.

The larger the group, the more unequal participation in the team’s discussion becomes. In a three-person group, the individual with the highest status will control about 47 percent of the group’s time; the second, about 30 percent; and the third, about 23 percent. As the group gets larger, the highest-status individual will continue to control around half of the conversation, with the remaining 50 percent split between everyone else. Hence, in a group consisting of eight or more people, there will be some members who hardly speak at all.8

Factors Driving Perceived Status

In the workplace, job seniority is heavily influential in determining status. Hence, if the boss is present, meeting attendees expect him or her to speak much more than anyone else.

Sadly—as is the case with many primate species—another potent source of information factored into ranking is physical appearance. The group’s subconscious assumption about the value of a person’s contributions could be affected by their clothing, for example, whether that is a suit or track pants. The main physical characteristics that confer status (termed "face-ism" by some social scientists9) comprise being male rather than female,10,11 being taller rather than below average height,12 being more attractive rather than below average in attractiveness,13,14 and being White rather than anything else.15 Finally, fluency in the language of the gathering can also affect status, with nonnative speakers permitted less airtime than native speakers.16

What to Do if No One Is Listening

If this sounds familiar to you—as well as depressing—it pays to remember that these dynamics have probably been established by default and implicit processes, rather than active and conscious ones. Moreover, getting angry at your teammates may not be very effective, because they may not be aware—or even believe—they are behaving in this manner. Status ranking dynamics based on the factors listed above can affect people’s behaviour even when they consciously do not believe in the stereotypes that seem to be driving them.

The good news is that there are specific action steps you can take to override a low default status and, thus, win more attention and more opportunity to contribute to the team meeting. One important step is to stop thinking of yourself in terms of the labels that most easily come to mind, and instead think of labels that are both status-invoking and true.

You can increase your relative status if you can leverage one or more of these relative status markers:

  • Quantified expertise in the topic of discussion, such as a relevant qualification or distinction.
  • Past achievement of a good result dealing with an issue that is important to the team.
  • Relevant experience, particularly if linked to a well-known brand or person.

Here is a suggested approach for your next team meeting:

  1. Plan a contribution for that meeting by choosing one of the topics to be addressed.
  2. Identify a status marker that elevates your status in relation to this topic. This could be one of the factors listed above. Another option is to prepare some relevant facts or data. For example, if the team discussion will focus on pricing strategy and you are the only one who has prepared an overview of competitor pricing, you are in a good position to attract attention. Speaking up with confidence is often interpreted as competence.
  3. Plan how to introduce the new information. It will require some tact to introduce status markers of this kind, but be aware that these markers are invisible and cannot impact your relative status if the group is not aware of them.

Keep in mind that the members of the group who are failing to listen to you are probably not behaving this way on purpose. Not only is it possible that this entire process has occurred unconsciously, but it is also supported by group consensus. That taller or older man is not the one putting himself in charge: everyone is putting him in charge. In experiments designed to give two participants of different status an opportunity to discuss a topic as equals, lower-status individuals were observed suggesting to higher-status individuals that they take the leadership position in a decision.17

Finally—if you are the team manager—be aware that people’s relative status within a group has a significant impact on their ability to contribute. The dynamics established within your team can be holding people back for social reasons rather than business reasons. Having the humility and self-awareness to work on changing these patterns can result in a wider variety of valuable ideas for you and your team.


See Working with Influence: Nine Principles of Persuasion to Accelerate Your Career

1. Webster, M., & Slattery Walker, L. (2016). The Theories of Status Characteristics and Expectation States. In Handbook of contemporary sociological theory (pp. 321–342). Springer: Cham.

2. Ridgeway, C. L. (2019). Understanding the nature of status inequality: Why is it everywhere? Why does it matter? Advances in Group Processes, 1–18.

3. Brashears, M. E. (2008). Sex, Society, and Association: A Cross-national Examination of Status Construction Theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, 71(1), 72–85.

4. Huberman, B. A., Loch, C. H., & Önçüler, A. (2004). Status As a Valued Resource. Social Psychology Quarterly, 67(1), 103–114.

5. Koski J., Xie, H., & Olson, I. R. (2015). Understanding social hierarchies: The neural and psychological foundations of status perception. Social Neuroscience, 10(5), 527-550. doi:10.1080/17470919.2015.1013223

6. Berger, J., Cohen, B. P., & Zelditch, M. (1972). Status Characteristics and Social Interaction. American Sociological Review, 37(3), 241.

7. Berger, J., & Fişek, M. H. (2006). Diffuse Status Characteristics and the Spread of Status Value: A Formal Theory. American Journal of Sociology, 111(4), 1038–1079.

8. Correll, S. J., & Ridgeway, C. L. (2006). Expectation States Theory. In J. DeLamater (Ed.), Handbook of Social Psychology (Ser. Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research, pp. 29–51). Springer, Boston MA

9. Olivola, C. Y., Funk, F., & Todorov, A. (2014). Social attributions from faces bias human choices. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(11), 566-570.

10. Webster, M., & Foschi, M. (1988). Status generalization: New theory and research. Stanford University Press.

11. Peck, B. M., & Conner, S. (2011). Talking with Me or Talking at Me? The Impact of Status Characteristics on Doctor-Patient Interaction. Sociological Perspectives, 54(4), 547–567.

12. Stulp, G., Buunk, A. P., Verhulst, S., & Pollet, T. V. (2015). Human Height Is Positively Related to Interpersonal Dominance in Dyadic Interactions. PLOS ONE, 10(2).

13. Verhulst, B., Lodge, M. & Lavine, H. The Attractiveness Halo: Why Some Candidates are Perceived More Favorably than Others. J Nonverbal Behav 34, 111–117 (2010).

14. Berggren, N., Jordahl, H., & Poutvaara, P. (2010). The looks of a winner: Beauty and electoral success. Journal of Public Economics, 94(1-2), 8–15.

15. Rosette, A. S., Leonardelli, G. J., & Phillips, K. W. (2008). The white standard: Racial bias in leader categorization. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(4), 758–777.

16. Järlström, M., Piekkari, R., Pilke, N., & Turpeinen, H. (2020). Perceptions of Language (Mis)fit at a Multilingual Workplace: The Case of the University of Vaasa. Language Perceptions and Practices in Multilingual Universities, 293–322.

17. Ritter A., & Yoder, J. D. (2004). Gender differences in leader emergence persist even for dominant women: An updated confirmation of role congruity theory. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28(3), 187-193. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2004.00135.x

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