To the casual observer, the meeting seemed ordinary enough. A group of people assembled in a conference room, discussing something. But for me, seated round the table with my team, this meeting was about to change everything I thought about my career.
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I had been in meetings like this before: the team gets together to discuss the status of a project, how it’s going, and what to do next. In these meetings, my primary goal would be to 1) give a good status update and 2) pay attention enough to know what to do next. The idea was: get your work done well, and get on to the next task.
But this time, it was different. The person leading the meeting wasn’t my manager at all, he wasn’t even on my team. He had a series of questions in front of him, and explained that we were there to talk about how our project was going, and determine which areas we could improve.
And that’s when it happened, the moderator turned to me and asked that simple question that changed it all:
What do you think?
I was caught completely off guard. “What do you think?” had typically been a loaded question, where answers were predicated upon how closely they aligned with the responses of everyone else (especially the manager) in the room. Tight-lipped, I scanned the room trying to figure out if this was a trick question.
I struggled with what to say among the attentive faces staring back at me. How could I give an answer that everyone would agree with? What did I think my other teammates would say? How could I be honest enough for everyone to still like me even if they disagreed with me? I was stuck.
But the meeting moderator defused my doubt. “There are no wrong answers here. We do this to get everyone’s true opinions on how the project is going. No one is going to be offended, no one has any expectations. We are here for the benefit of the team as a whole.”
And that was the beauty of the meeting. Everyone was invited to share their thoughts, opinions, and experiences equally. Titles and seniority were shed for the benefit of the ideas presented. And people listened to each other, accepted feedback openly, and discussed improvements collaboratively.
Not rejected for speaking up
You see, we had created something called “psychological safety”. It’s characteristic of a group culture described by Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmondson, as a “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up… a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
In other words: you can mean what you say, and say what you mean.
It was a phenomenon I hadn’t experienced before in other jobs. Managers hadn’t really asked my opinion, and if they had, a certain answer was expected in return. I had mastered the art of hiding in plain sight, of holding back my ideas in an effort of self-preservation. And it was exhausting and demotivating.
In fact, not feeling empowered at work is one of the top reasons talented people leave their jobs. No one asks for their opinion, no one cares what they think, no one considers the unique perspective they can contribute. And attrition rates at companies, most of all tech, run high.
Could it be that managers are left scratching their heads wondering why they can’t keep top talent, when all along, all they had to do was ask their people what they think?
Innovative teams talk
Google has long studied workplace happiness and productivity. After many years of research, they found that on high-performing teams people spoke in roughly the same proportion, what researchers call, “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking”. Teams that came up with the most innovative solutions were the ones in which everyone got a chance to talk.
And that’s what we were doing with the Health Monitor, my team’s term for this most extraordinary meeting I was in. We were leveling the playing field and extracting the insight, opinions, and perspectives of everyone involved. And it changed the way I approached everything: my work, my team, and myself.
I felt confidence where I hadn’t before: to be honest, to trust my instincts, and own my expertise. It consoled my people-pleasing tendencies to know that whatever I said would be taken neutrally and without judgment. To learn that my team wanted to hear my opinion made me feel valued and included.
I left the meeting feeling great— my team was on my side and I was on theirs! We were all convinced that no matter where we stood, we’d all work together.
Since then, that team has been the most unified of any I’ve been on. And, we’re all really proud of the work we’ve done. We’re not perfect, but we’re committed to improvement. And having more meetings like the Health Monitor.
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More about the Health Monitor
Running a Health Monitor may not come naturally to your team and your style of working. It certainly didn’t for me at first. But, here are some basic principles I’d recommend to make your Health Monitor run well:
- Honesty. Health Monitors don’t work if everyone puts on a happy face. And yes, giving honest feedback to the group puts you in a vulnerable position, but it’s essential to bring these issues to light. You may be the only one reporting negatively in a certain area, but you just have to own it. Perhaps you will be the only one to bring up an important topic that no one else has noticed. Or maybe you will be able to get clarification on something that you had misunderstood. Either way, a commitment to honesty requires this next thing…
- Trust. In a Health Monitor, some things may come up that are not pretty. However, you must trust that each team member is acting in good faith and support of the team’s overall health. There are no winners of a health monitor, and trusting that people’s participation is for the good of the team is the only way to act as a cohesive unit.
- Optimism. Health Monitors don’t exist to make you feel bad, but some feedback can be tough. Instead of feeling defeated, let feedback motivate you to do better. Everyone participating in the session must be committed to the betterment of the team and be willing to own next steps and how to get to full health wherever the team happens to be.
So, I end this post with the same question to you: “What do you think?” Are you ready to let your team hear your voice?
Also published on Medium.