Voicing Your Opinion and Influencing in Group Discussions: Two Essential Leadership Qualities

I’ve recently heard CEOs and industry leaders complain about the lack of initiative from employees who should show signs of leadership. Workers’ silence during meetings and group discussions was taken to be a lack of initiative, of interest, of ability or energy for their work.

 

The ability to influence and to voice one’s opinion in group discussions are two essential qualities of shared and vertical leadership. The propensity or ability to voice one’s opinion does not have to do with an individual’s age, their profession or even of their or the rest of the group’s position within the organization.

 

The fear of speaking in a group setting can be due to an individual’s personality (they can be naturally timid or introverted). It can also be that the organization does not favor an environment where workers are encouraged to take initiative and present new ideas and new perspectives to problems and issues. According to my professional observations, the difficulty of speaking in groups and taking initiative can also be caused by a fundamental misunderstanding between the leaders’ expectations of their workers.

 

How can one encourage their own or another worker’s propensity to speak in groups and to better collaborate and become more involved in the practice of collective leadership?

 

There are actions that can be taken to develop one’s personal or a colleague’s abilities to better communicate and influence during discussions.

 

Here are three examples based on my own case-studies and which can help optimize the collective leadership potential of a group or organization.

 
 

***

 

Case 1: Did the cat get the consultant’s tongue?

For the past 25 years, Carol (not his real name) managed to build a profitable enterprise in the domain of agricultural production despite the many criticisms from people who tried to discourage him. Considered an important entrepreneur and leader in his field, this CEO exports most of his company’s productions to the United States and does so by employing 50 to 100 workers at different moments of the year. Carol has also dedicated a part of his time to the training and guiding of future agricultural entrepreneurs.

 

Recently, he has been both surprised and disappointed by one of his consultant’s continuous silence during meetings. Carol claims that this consultant’s participation during group discussions consists of listening and only expressing his opinion when is asked to do so. He is frustrated and annoyed by this worker’s silence, especially since he has over 30 years of experience in the field.

 

According to this CEO, a consultant in the domain of agricultural production has the responsibility to express their opinions and interests about the subjects discussed in group meetings. The least they should do is question issues that can provoke constructive interrogations from ambitious and inexperienced interns and young entrepreneurs. They should also encourage initiatives to be taken and lessons and past experiences to be shared among younger workers.

 

This consultant’s silence during meetings can be due to his modest and discrete personality. It can also be that he misunderstood the expectations and the negative impact of his attitude on clients and colleagues. Finally, there might also have been a misinterpretation of the importance of his role and its relationship to clients, bosses and replacements.

 

The same observations can be made for any junior or senior consultant in human resources, in engineering, in finance or in any domain demanding organizational and leadership skills. These abilities involve: being able to ask questions, to modestly share one’s knowledge, to validate a concept or an idea or even to propose an opinion that challenges a prevailing theory.

 

For the senior consultant, the same actions should be undertaken as well as the following: presenting different solutions to colleagues and clients, sharing past experiences, motivating and reminding younger workers and colleagues of the common objectives to achieve, questioning a decision, challenging the status quo or the conformism within the organization and exposing younger workers to models of inspiration.

 

***

 

Case 2: The shy newbie or young intern.

The second example is about a timid and modest young intern in a communications and advertising agency who, by fear that her inexperience would reflect in her opinions and questions, remains silent and is content to listen in group discussions. The intern’s boss, eager to hear her speak to understand her generation’s opinions and to hear the innovative ideas that would come from her naïve observations, was deceived by her continuous silence during meetings. He was not expecting her professional judgment to be flawless, but he was at least hoping for an interesting exchange.

 

The older generations of interns and apprentices were expected to learn by using their tools through observing and practicing their trade. In modern societies, communication and the observation of models are the new tools for interns and young entrepreneurs. Interns should participate actively in both formal and informal group discussions if they are to contribute to their team, organization or society’s collective leadership potential. This ability to participate in discussions is one of the intern’s main tools for learning and reflecting.

 

The intern or the young employee can learn to make their place within the organization even though their influence and expertise is not as strong as older and more experienced employees. They need to understand their colleagues and superiors’ expectations of their roles and responsibilities, the values of the organization and the extent of influence they should have on others. Another way for the intern or young employee to make their place in a new team or organization can be during orientations and trainings, where they can ask questions, make observations and share their needs and concerns with their new colleagues.

 

Any organization hoping to benefit from the intellectual resources of new employees should create a mentoring environment. The employer and older colleagues should listen to new workers and encourage them to speak and to influence others during group discussions. The new worker will quickly be encouraged if their ideas and observations are considered and integrated into solutions and strategies and if their attempts to influence are recognized and applauded by their superiors (bosses, colleagues, trainers, coaches).

 

At the same time, if this new worker’s ideas and perspectives are judged as unrealistic or inappropriate, their superiors should point out the stronger points of the observation and suggest ways to adjust the weaker ones. The following example demonstrates what can happen when an employee whose approaches have never been corrected from the beginning and continues working in the same company for many years.

 

***

 

Case 3: The sudden incompetence of a promoted employee.

This is the case of a recently promoted senior executive who, due to the challenges of his new role, is unable to influence and exert his expertise as he once was. His new position demands the ability to take different types of initiatives such as: thinking outside the box, anticipating short, middle and long term outcomes and proposing solutions and strategies instead of waiting on his superiors to delegate tasks to execute. His job before the promotion was to control and manage the circulation of administrative information and to supervise and to insure the execution of tasks delegated from higher authorities.

 

The newly appointed senior executive was rushed into a much more strategic and influential position. He was undergoing a cultural shock and was unable to take his place during executive meetings. His colleagues, stressed by the complexity and quick progress of challenges, were becoming increasingly impatient with his hesitations and of lack of judgment. The organization’s expectations of this worker had never been very clear and the challenges of his new position emphasized his trouble to take initiatives and to influence.

 

The influence within an enterprise becomes increasingly more multilateral at higher hierarchical levels (employees, clients, suppliers, partners, stakeholders) and leadership abilities become increasingly more important for those who reach these levels. The situation above could have been avoided if the worker had better understood his position’s expectations since the beginning and not only those related to his field of expertise. There should also have been more feedback and constructive criticism from the rest of the organization.

 
 

Conclusion.

Leadership skills can be learned at every moment of an individual’s professional and personal life by developing and applying one’s leadership potential with respect to one’s abilities, interests and roles.

 

The organization’s personnel and leaders should also work to develop and encourage every worker’s ability to influence by pointing out and reminding them of the challenges and benefits associated to every worker’s role. The ability to reflect on situations is another important tool for the continuous development of one’s leadership skills. This includes: a retrospection of clients, of personnel, of colleagues, of employers and of experts within the organization.

 

The organization’s senior executives should act as mentors by explaining to workers and collaborators the norms and expectations with respect to the practice of leadership and by guiding them in the organizational environment. This can be done by many ways such as: with open and frequent discussions between members of the personnel and with feedback, reflections, training, developing programs and models.

 
 

Edith Luc

 

© 2011. Edith Luc. All Rights Reserved.


Leave a Reply