Updated: Feb 20
Have you ever found yourself in a meeting or, worse yet, leading a meeting where the sound of silence is deafening (forgive the 60's Simon and Garfunkel reference)? Questions are presented, updates are provided, and there is complete silence. Limited to no discussion, no debate, and just the noticeable absence of conversation. The evidence is overwhelming that a lack of thorough team discussion negatively impacts outcomes and organizational effectiveness. If you were researching team silence on a WebMD organizational version, the medical advisory would read:
Caution: team silence can be a symptom of a severe organizational health issue and should not be ignored. Seek an intervention immediately.
To remain competitive in today's complex and digital marketplace, leaders and teams need to communicate effectively.
Diagnosing the Silence
There are several potential contributing factors to a lack of communication during team meetings. Team members may be unwilling to engage because of: introversion, self-absorption, self-esteem, feeling distant from others, situational unease, lack of talent, a culture that reinforces behavioral silence norms, or a lack of trust. If the team is new, or the reason for the lack of team communication is not well understood, the use of the willingness to communicate (WTC) instrument can reveal helpful insights. McCroskey's WTC instrument assesses an individuals' desire to communicate and provides norms across multiple communication contexts, such as group discussions, meetings, and interpersonal conversations. Understanding the team's willingness to communicate baseline score helps level set communication expectations, understand the severity of the silence, and provides insights for needed intervention.
Starting with Trust
Although there are several different possible ways to solve a lack of team communication, trust is worth exploring first. According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, recent trends indicate that trust is declining across society. Merriam-Webster.com defines trust as "the reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something." Trust takes place between team members, and it has to be earned. Trust is essential for teams to work together effectively, feel safe, and have a sense of belonging. The team leader should lead the trust intervention. The intervention should begin with investigating what, if anything, is potentially causing a loss of trust within the team. Patrick Lencioni's book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is an excellent resource to help leaders assess if trust is absent within the team. In his book, Lencioni also provides many suggestions for improving trust.
Team leaders and team members should also measure their trustworthiness. Authors Maister, Green, and Galford, in their book The Trusted Advisor, presented that trustworthiness is made up of four essential attributes:
Credibility is the most frequently achieved attribute of trustworthiness. It has rational and emotional aspects related to an individual's content expertise and personal presence.
Reliability is based on the frequency of interactions with someone and the consistency for them to behave as expected.
Intimacy requires being personal and the willingness to have a courageous conversation. This is one of the key differentiating attributes of trustworthiness.
Self-orientation relates to the amount of focus placed on oneself versus the emphasis placed on the other person. A High degree of self-orientation creates significant distrust with others.
Assigning ratings to each of these attributes and using a trust equation (see Figure 1) allows you to measure your trustworthiness.
Improving team trust provides many personal and organizational benefits, such as increasing the exchange of information in team meetings resulting in improved quality, time, and project cost. If you have questions on getting started with individual and organizational development we would like to help (contact us).
Cheung, S. O., Yiu, T. W., & Lam, M. C. (2013). Interweaving trust and communication with project performance. Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, 139(8), 941-950. doi:10.1061/(ASCE)CO.1943-7862.0000681
Johnson, C. E., & Hackman, M. Z. (2018). Leadership: A communication perspective (6th ed.). Long Grove, Ill: Waveland Press.
McCroskey, J. C. (1992). Reliability and validity of the willingness to communicate scale. Communication Quarterly, 40(1), 16-25. doi:10.1080/01463379209369817
Schein, E. H. (1996). Culture: The missing concept in organization studies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41(2), 229-240. doi:10.2307/2393715
Jeff Doolittle, MBA has extensive knowledge and expertise in leadership development, talent management, and coaching to grow individuals and organizations. Jeff has experience from start-ups to Fortune 50 public, Forbes 25 private, for-profit, and non-profit organizations across diverse industries. Jeff Doolittle is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI. He can be reached at email@example.com or by calling (616) 803-9020. Visit his blog for more ideas to stimulate individual, team, and organizational effectiveness.