Why Great Teams Speak Up and Challenge Their Leaders

A recent study at MIT confirmed that many of you reading this need to speak up!

I agree. In my experience working teams made up of scientists, MD’s, engineers, and researchers, many of these leaders were talkers to the detriment of team performance. They are often articulate and captivating, naturally adding value when they speak. But over time, when they lead the conversation, others just check out. The team sits in silence and the result is one-dimensional results.

This is a leadership problem, of sorts, that can be resolved.

After a few hours with a R&D team at a top pharma company working on a new product launch, most of the comments in our discussions were being made by 7 out of the 20 people on the team. The rest were more or less quiet. I held up the mirror and said “Hey, I noticed that only 7 of you are doing most of the talking. Is this how it is back at work?”

Bam! Dead silence. Then I could see the light bulbs go off in team members’ eyes. Suddenly, one of the people who hadn’t said a word raised her hand and said “Yes, this is how it is. I sit in meetings and I want to contribute but there is no space. Everyone has something to say and I don’t want to be rude, so I patiently wait. Next thing, it is too late—the meeting ends.”

Immediately, the team leaders responded. “You are so right. Please chime in.” Others said “I will make sure I include you.” And “This is so important. Thank you! I am going to make sure I ask the quieter people what they think.”

It turned out that this quiet person was no shrinking violet. She was a PhD from a top school and in a leadership role in regulatory. She was critical for the new product launch. Her lack of involvement meant that important issues were not being considered.

About 50% of the population is like this woman: they need to quietly think through and consider their opinion before sharing it. If you don’t know what some people in a meeting think about a topic, it is not because they have nothing to share—it is because you didn’t ask. On top of this, culture plays a part. You may have people on your team who grew up in Asia where they will not contradict you in a meeting. Or a young PhD graduate who doesn’t yet feel “smart” enough to add their 2 cents. You may need to talk offline to these people to get their input.

Needless to say, this was a pivotal moment in this team’s development.

Later that day, one of the team members actually taped her own mouth because she wanted to not speak. In fact, a few weeks after the event, the R&D leader told me how the woman who taped her mouth shut had spent the first 40 minutes of a meeting not saying a word. This was unprecedented. It allowed others who were usually quiet to contribute, resulting in higher productivity and morale.

How do you know if you guide/dominate your pharma team to the point of diminishing returns?

* You lead a team that doesn’t seem to have a mind of their own. They don’t take enough initiative to solve the problems in front of them. They wait for the leader to lead. I’ve seen this complaint a lot from executives. It usually means that they don’t trust you will hear them, support them, acknowledge them, or include them. Most commonly, you are so busy selling your ideas to your team that there is no space for them.

* You lead a team and say “any questions?” and there are consistently none. Try changing the question to “what questions do you have?” and wait 5 seconds. If that doesn’t work, then you need to look in the mirror and see what you are doing to shut your team down. Criticizing their ideas? Taking over their ideas? Ignoring their ideas? It has to be one of those.

* Who comes up with ideas at every meeting? If you are one of the people, next time count to 10 and let others play.

* No one on your team comes to you for your input because they know they will get an earful of self-promotion.

* Count how many times you say ‘I’ in a meeting and compare it to how many times you say ‘we.’ If the I’s have it, view that as a warning sign.


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