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Healthy Habits for High-Performing Leaders: Want to Overcome the Blank Stares? Share Last.

overcome the blank stare

Imagine your manager called a staff meeting and said, “Hi everyone. Let’s discuss how we can improve sales outcomes. Here’s what I think we should do: Rearrange the sales territories, raise prices by 10%, and hire two more salespeople. What do you all think?”

If my manager came to me with that kind of announcement, I’d feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, disagreeing with them in front of others might not look good for me. On the other, I’d have to go along with their plan without any real chance to provide feedback, even if I’m not convinced it’s the right move.

In this case, the manager may not have been looking for feedback, but in most cases, leaders want team members who are proactive, engaged, and willing to share their ideas and viewpoints to get the best outcomes. Ironically, sometimes, their actions as leaders can hinder the team from doing just that.

I asked a question: Why am I not hearing anything?

In our previous article about soliciting feedback, we discussed preventing that awkward silence. It stems from several factors. Leaders often look for proactive, passionate team members eager to contribute ideas. Ironically, sometimes leaders’ actions can inadvertently suppress this spirit, leading to what’s known as “learned helplessness.” This concept, borrowed from animal behavior studies, describes how individuals can become so accustomed to feeling powerless in unchangeable situations that they stop trying to make a difference, even when opportunities arise.

This issue can manifest in organizations when employees feel their voices are unheard or undervalued. It might stem from a leadership style that limits individual freedom and autonomy, causing team members to hold back their ideas, even if the leader doesn’t intend to create such an environment.

Tone and Psychological Safety

Learned helplessness can stem from undermining a person’s sense of psychological safety or inadvertently restricting their involvement through our tone or approach.

There’s frequently a gap between leaders’ verbal encouragements for openness and their responses when issues are brought up. Leaders might want to hear about challenges or mistakes, but their reactions to these admissions can sometimes be less than encouraging. Likewise, when asking for suggestions or ideas, responses like “We’ve already tried that” or “That won’t work” can unintentionally erode the psychological safety crucial for open and honest participation.

Asking leading questions

The manner and nature of the questions posed can also inhibit engagement. Often framed with an assumption of agreement or a preference for a particular answer, these questions can discourage genuine feedback and make team members hesitant to express dissenting views or in-depth insights. Examples might include:

  • Is there any reason we shouldn’t go ahead with this plan?
  • Do you agree that this is the best approach?
  • Does anyone have any minor concerns about this?

For more examples, check out our earlier blog on asking great questions.

Adjusting Your Approach Can Change the Outcome

It’s not always easy to change who you are. Addressing these issues requires a concerted effort to foster an environment where open dialogue is both encouraged and supported by consistent and constructive responses. Let’s look at a few strategies for engaging silent participants.

7 ways

  1. Accept silence as part of the process (and get comfortable with it): When we throw questions into the mix, remember that everyone’s thought process is unique. Some might need a moment to gather their thoughts. Embrace the silence; it’s not awkward; it’s a blank canvas for creativity. Giving people room to think before they speak can lead to more thoughtful contributions in group discussions. And don’t mistake silence for agreement or indifference. A direct nudge can encourage those quieter voices to share valuable insights.
  2. Embrace persistence: Fostering deep engagement is more of a marathon than a sprint. It’s important to recognize that building a culture where genuine sharing and heartfelt responses flourish takes time and persistence. Keep at it; you’ll see the rich conversations and meaningful interactions evolve naturally.
  3. Proactively involve participants: Silence isn’t always golden—it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone’s on the same page. Take a moment to call on or draw out the quieter voices in the room. A gentle coax can go a long way; some folks just need that extra bit of encouragement to open up and share their valuable perspectives.
  4. Cultivate effective questioning techniques: Let your questions be guided by a genuine desire to understand and explore. Open-ended questions can spark dialogue rather than ones that merely seek confirmation. To enrich the conversation, actively invite different perspectives, including any concerns or challenges. This approach broadens the discussion and fosters a more inclusive environment.
  5. Encourage constructive dissent: Adopt a critical perspective to identify and address potential issues. Openly questioning consensus and seeking alternative viewpoints can uncover valuable insights. You can say, “While we’ve found common ground, let’s challenge our thinking. Can anyone identify potential flaws in this plan? Or perhaps suggest an alternate approach we haven’t considered?”
  6. Prioritize active listening: Enhance your listening skills by focusing 100% on the speaker, avoiding distractions, and resisting the urge to plan your next response. Aim to comprehend deeply rather than merely waiting for your turn to speak.
  7. Foster a supportive environment: As a leader, the atmosphere you create significantly influences team dynamics. Make sure your own actions and reactions foster a space where honesty and openness are the norms. When you see positive input, don’t just notice it—celebrate it! This way, you’re not just saying what you value; you’re showing it, encouraging more of those good vibes and constructive contributions. 

By implementing these strategies, leaders can cultivate a more interactive and responsive team environment, where silence becomes an opportunity for reflection rather than a barrier to communication.

Let’s Talk

While it takes time to build new habits, sometimes leaders need a nudge to move forward. A structured program can foster a culture of meaningful engagement within your team. We invite you to explore our Leadership Development Programs if you’re committed to nurturing healthy leadership habits, such as encouraging open dialogue.

Contact us to discover how we can help you transform your leadership approach for greater effectiveness and inclusivity.

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