Imagine this situation. A team meeting is taking place to decide on targets for the new quarter. An opinionated member of the team called Taylor insists on Target A, and takes over the conversation by talking about why Target A is the way to go for the first fifteen minutes.
The rest of the team sit in silence. Sam, being less opinionated than Taylor, discards his opinions to agree with Target A. Blair disagrees, she actually believes that Target B would be more sustainable than Target A. But after listening to Sam and some other team members vocally agree with Taylor, she keeps quiet and nods in agreement.
Taylor goes uncontested, and Target A is chosen. Taylor is delighted; the Sams and Blairs of the team not so much.
How loud people affect the workplace
The Taylors of the world usually don’t mean to hijack the conversation. They believe in their opinion and are very comfortable being vocal about them. Yet, people who are louder and more vocal in the workplace can have an effect on important decisions made in the workplace and conversations that take place.
In the example above, Sam and Blair are led by their instinct to conform and fear of backlash to withhold their own opinions. This could lead to many missed opportunities. Though Blair thinks Target B is a better idea, that suggestion is never brought to light.
This is an occurrence of Groupthink, which is defined by Psychology Today as “when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions that are spurred by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent.” It can happen in any social situation, but can be detrimental in the workplace when it suppresses open discourse, innovation, and decreases employee engagement.
As shared in a Medium post by Dr. Christine Bradstreet:
“I don’t care if you’re the quietest person in the room, speak up when the meeting/group/team is going off the rails to comply with the loud person simply because they’re loud.
More than their just volume, it’s likely the certainty and aggressive manner they can have that mesmerizes the rest of the group. It doesn’t take long for the rest of the room to go quiet while the loudest person starts calling the shots.”
The problem with the loudest people in the room don’t necessarily lie with the people themselves. It lies with the assumption that loudness is correlated to expertise and credibility.
As a manager, it can be a struggle to sidetrack the negative effects of a dominant employee.
Differentiate enthusiasm from bullying behaviour
If you face a situation like this, first figure out why the employee dominates the meeting.
If their loudness comes from enthusiasm, then it helps to encourage that enthusiasm while setting boundaries with other team members.
But if the loudness is intimidating and aggressive, then consider how it affects your other team members. Employees who are loud and intrusive in the workplace can be intimidating and often have a demoralising effect on other employees. In some instances, this effect could be a deliberate attempt to put down fellow team members and climb the corporate ladder.
According to Gary Vee:
“If you’re the CEO of a company, it’s imperative that you go audit every single employee in your company, and figure out which ones make the other employees miserable.
It doesn’t matter if it’s your number one salesperson, your best developer, or even your co-founder. Cancer spreads.”
Create a culture that rewards effort, not noise
To avoid noise from taking over, look to how your company rewards your team. According to Harvard Business Review, company culture is what guides decision-making when the CEO leaves the room. Building a culture that rewards effort rather than noise, therefore, builds a company that makes decisions based on results rather than empty words.
Reward doesn’t necessarily mean monetarily, but also socially. Are the loudest people in the room the ones who get the most compliments? Are they the ones who are the most visible with managers? If so, then it might be time to change things up.
Tip #1: Crowd-source suggestions through a poll before the meeting.
Before a meeting, crowd-source suggestions through a polling system first. Taking the suggestions collection onto a different medium could help take the force of a charismatic personality out from the decision-making process.
After that, allow employees to vote for their favourite suggestion. This not only helps to get a true reflection of the suggestions people like the best, but also gives the employee with the best suggestions a new form of social recognition in the workplace.
Make room for truth in the workplace, even if it is painful
Sometimes, it can be hard to listen to feedback. When you’re deeply rooted into the status quo, listening to feedback or suggestions that break out of that status quo can be scary.
This fear has driven managers to favour less impactful suggestions and ignore valuable ideas. While easy is safe and secure, it is also a sure way for empty vessels to take over the workplace and drive quality employees out.
Or, even worse, it could fill your team with ‘Yes’ people, employees who are not likely to challenge you if you are wrong. According to Gallup, surrounding yourself by ‘Yes’ people could open yourself to confirmation bias, and “the solution lies in a decision to create an environment where people can speak truth to power.”
Tip #2: Give yourself a buffer response time to all ideas.
If you find yourself getting frustrated, scared, or rejecting an idea almost immediately in your mind, take a day to reflect on the idea first and take the time to reflect on why.
The extra time will help you differentiate ideas with real potential from ideas that are actually unsuitable, and react accordingly. Be upfront with your concerns, and allow your team to step up and change your mind.
Prioritise psychological safety in the workplace
Harvard Business Review describes psychological safety as the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. In workplace discussions, this relates directly to the belief that you may be punished if you say something wrong.
While it is important to draw lines on inappropriate and offensive language, employees should not feel any fear of losing their jobs if they raise suggestions or opinions. Make it a HR priority to ensure all employees feel secure enough in their roles to speak their minds. When your employees feel safe in their roles, they will be more comfortable disagreeing with even the loudest person in the room.
Tip #3: Use technology to even the playing field in the workplace
In group settings where a louder person could easily take control of the room, make use of a tool like Pigeonhole Live to gather insights from quieter teammates. By allowing anonymous responses, it lessens the potential backlash on employees.
Question voting also helps surface the real group sentiment, instead of the loudest group sentiment. This gives even the quietest of team members a chance to be heard.
Make room for diversity in the workplace
A recent study of more than 230 senior board members and high ranking executives believe the most important way to alleviate groupthink is to introduce diversity of thought.
But making room for diversity doesn’t stop at hiring diverse teams.
Diversity truly becomes part of your company culture when you account for it in your decision-making process. Even when a popular consensus arises from a discussion, consider the perspectives of people from different demographics, ideologies, and worldviews. This forces the team to actively explore options other than the loud person’s opinion.
Tip #4: Appoint a random devil’s advocate at each meeting
To ensure that diverse opinions are taken into account, select a meeting attendee at random who will serve as the devil’s advocate for the meeting. That person’s job during the meeting will be to counter all popular ideas and encourage debate around it.
Having a dedicated devil’s advocate helps create a friendly environment to test the strength of popular ideas, while frame important questions that need to be asked in the innovation process.