In any business meeting, there will always be some people who speak up more than others. It’s a natural consequence of group dynamics — but it’s also a major problem for organizations. When some voices aren’t being heard, it can mean only one thing: Your employees are probably having at least some great ideas that never see the light of day.
So what can you do as a leader to make space for voices that might not otherwise be heard? Here are three strategies to help make sure every employee feels safe to speak up.
1. Don’t assume
As a leader, it’s easy to assume that when people are silent, it means they have nothing to contribute at that moment — especially if you’re the kind of person who regularly speaks up.
That’s a perfectly natural assumption to make. After all, we construct mental models of the internal states of others by thinking about what we would do in their shoes. But projecting our own habits, motivations, and intentions onto others is actually part of a cognitive bias called the “false consensus effect” — the tendency to act as if other people think the same way we do.
And that’s a dangerous assumption to make, thinking that if someone had something to say, they’d just go ahead and say it. The reality is that your team is made up of all different types of people, and there are a variety of personal, social, and situational reasons why people remain silent even when they have valuable ideas to contribute.
First, there are personal factors. Extroverts may feel comfortable sharing their thoughts unbidden, but introverts may wait to be asked. They may also find that even when they want to speak up, they can’t find the opportunity. Some people wait for a pause in the conversation to jump in and make a point, only to find that in busy meetings with people talking over each other, that opening never comes.
There are also power differences that come into play. Higher-status people tend to express themselves freely, while people lower on the totem pole may feel that it’s not appropriate for them to share — especially if it involves challenging the views of others or sharing an opinion their manager hasn’t yet weighed in on.
So be careful not to assume that people will necessarily feel comfortable speaking up for themselves. It’s up to you to create a space where even quiet voices feel welcome to speak.
2. Use your power for good
The position of manager inherently comes with a certain amount of power. As a leader, you can use that power to help elevate the voices of those who might not otherwise be heard.
So ask yourself: Is there anyone in the room for whom English is a second language? Those people may naturally keep quiet because it may take them a little bit longer to process the conversation or because they may feel the need to be more thoughtful about what they want to say in return.
If you’ve noticed that someone on your team is a bit of an introvert — someone who’s more comfortable speaking in a one-on-one context — think about how you can create a space for that person to share. Sometimes that may be as simple as asking people what they think: when you notice someone has not had a chance to share their perspective, be an ally and ask them to do so.
Many introverts who don’t volunteer their thoughts spontaneously will happily speak up when called on. Other times, you may have to interrupt people who dominate the discussion to open the floor for quieter people to speak.
3. Set a welcoming tone
If you want to create a culture of open participation in which everyone feels welcome to contribute their ideas, you must go beyond lifting quieter voices. You also have to define the purpose behind what you’re doing.
Don’t assume that your intentions are clear to others just because they’re clear to you — a cognitive bias known as the “illusion of transparency.” You can’t afford to assume that everyone will automatically understand why you’re making a change. So before you start interrupting the extroverts in the room to make way for quieter people, you may want to explain a little about the new process and your reasoning behind it.
Try saying something like, “As I’m running this meeting, I want to make sure I hear from everyone. If I stop you, please don’t be offended. I just want to make sure we create space for everyone.” And remember: When you invite quieter voices to speak, you’re not just giving them space to articulate their ideas. You’re also sending the broader message that they are people you believe are worth hearing from.
In doing so, you’re not just enabling them to speak up in that moment — you’re also helping them build self-efficacy. If you deliver the message properly, even the quietest people in the room should find themselves thinking, “I can and should speak up. My voice is welcome.”
To learn more about raising voices, click here to download the white paper “The NLI Business Case: How Diversity Defeats Groupthink.”