Long-Term Business Success: It's Evolution, Stupid

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How to Overcome Domination by a Few

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January 2010

How to Overcome Domination by a Few

Complaints about 1 or 2 people dominating team meetings is one of the more common issues we hear from our clients. It is a major reason why people find meetings so frustrating and such a waste of time.

For the last 25 years, we have been asking team development workshop participants to hold up the number of fingers that represents how many people tend to dominate a typical meeting of 10 people. Over 75% of participants put up 2 or 3 fingers.

So almost everyone feels that at most meetings about 75% of the people will not feel heard and there is little anyone can do about it.

A common result is that the leader believes the team has reached consensus when in fact people have just become resigned to the fact that their ideas won’t get heard without them creating a fuss. So they keep quiet. Then, the leader is surprised when the team does not implement what was “agreed to” in the meeting.

People didn’t buy in. They gave in to the dominant voices.

Designing ways to overcome domination by a few is relatively easy and we have described a few below. The real issue is, do you have the courage to overcome the status quo by implementing these designs.

Overcoming Domination by a Few
The key to overcoming domination by a few is to design meetings that:

1. Maximizes the opportunity for everyone to be engaged and involved
2. Minimize the ability of people to dominate the entire conversation.

Typically when the leader asks for ideas, the quickest and fastest thinkers dominate the direction of the discussion because their ideas get out there first. Since their ideas dominate the discussion, it can lead to premature closure on potential solutions or actions. Other ideas never get surfaced and are never even considered.

Actually, in our experience it is not unusual for the first talkers to be out there first no matter what the topic. It may not even be their area of expertise, but they are the first to put stuff on the table. People who tend to dominate will dominate any discussion.

Therefore, when it is important to maximize participation in a discussion, the session must be designed to overcome their ability to dominate.

There are numerous ways to ensure everyone who wants to be heard gets heard. A few classic designs are:

1. Break people down into small discussion groups
  Whatever the size of the meeting, try to break people down into groups of 3-4 people. If your meeting involves 6 people, try two groups of 3. If you have 10 people, break into two groups of 3 and one group of 4.
  That way, at worst the dominant people can only take over a subset of the team, not the entire team. And hopefully there will be some groups without any of the predictably domineering people.
2. The Nominal Group Technique (NGT)
  This is an oldie but goodie. It is good because it is simple and it works.
  In the Nominal Group Technique, everyone is asked to quietly, by themselves write down their ideas. Then you go around the room, with everyone stating one and only one idea at a time. The goal is to around the room enough times until no one has an idea they feel is good enough to share with the group. If some one’s idea has already been stated, the person just states another idea on their list. In this first step, there is no discussion of the ideas (the dominant people will take over and stop idea generation if you let them discuss things!).
  The goal of the second step is to discuss the ideas the group has generated. People can ask clarifying questions, debate the pros and cons of each idea, combine similar or related ideas, etc. It may be best to do this step in small groups (see #1 above).
  In the third step the group votes to determine the best ideas.
3. Six Thinking Hats
  While there are many good problem solving designs available, we often use Dr. Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats.
  In brief, the process involves taking the group through six different problem solving steps (or hats). In each step participants focus on a different perspective including:
      What do we know and what don’t we know about this problem
(White Hat)
      What are the benefits to solving the problem (Yellow Hat)
      What are our strongest feelings about this issue (Red Hat)
      What could go wrong (Black Hat)
      What are some possible solutions to the problem (Green Hat)
  The beauty of the design lies in the fact that it:
      Allows for many different perspectives before you get to generating solutions (to prevent getting to solutions prematurely)
      Puts a time limit on how much time you can spend on any one per spective (so you do not get bogged down on one issue or hat)
      Allows you to only discuss one hat at a time (so you don’t get sidetracked)
      Prevents people from going back to a hat that has already been discussed (so a person can only play the devil’s advocate (the black hat) for a limited and controlled amount of time)
      When done in small groups, prevents anyone from dominating the Discussion
  Since people who tend to inappropriately dominate discussions either overuse the black hat (the role of critic and what can go wrong), go right to the green hat (generating solutions), or take the group off track with side issues, a design such as Six Thinking Hats is a great way to manage these issues and to generate ideas and engagement.

Predictable Resistance

There are a couple of typical complaints you will hear about these methods.

1. When you attempt to break people into small groups you will often hear “But we won’t be able to hear what everyone is saying”. Of course, if you didn’t break into small groups you normally wouldn’t hear from 70-80% of the people, so usually this complaint is heard from one of the more dominant people. Why? Because they like dominating the meeting and if the team breaks down into small groups they lose their influence and power. So the big, dominant people will resist this solution. Are you willing to face this resistance? How about if one of the resisters is the boss?
2. “We don’t need those silly touchy feely designs. We can solve problems without them.” While team members may have experienced designs that are not effective (either because the design was inappropriate or the facilitator lacked the skills to execute it), it does not mean all designs are ineffective. People often talk about touchy feely concerns because they fear the design will only deal with emotions and not with getting work done. The designs described above should help the team reach better decisions with increased input from everyone. As a result, they will not be experienced as irrelevant or touchy feely.

You will need at least two things to be prepared to overcome this resistance:

1. The honest belief that the design you use will work and is needed by the group to overcome unproductive and dysfunctional behavior. You have to be secure in your belief or the resisters will smell blood – and you’ll never get the design started.
2. You need to be ready to make a business case for doing something different. People may hate the status quo, but they are used to it and/or resigned to it. You may be taking people out of their comfort zones and you need to give them a good reason for trying something new. For example, you could collect some simple, yet powerful data such as
    On a scale of 1-10:
        o How much do you feel your ideas are solicited?
        o How comfortable do you feel in expressing your opinions?
        o How much input do you have on decisions made by group?
        o How committed are you to the group’s decisions in this meeting?
    Then, analyze and discuss the results with the group. If the answers have a large spread, especially on the last item, people would be more likely to accept the fact that something different has to be done.

A Caveat: It Can be More Complex Than You Think

While the above designs can help the team overcome domination by a few, most likely there are other issues contributing to the problem.

What role is the dominant person playing?

Maybe the rest of group appreciates this person’s great ideas. Or, maybe the group cannot or does not want to say what the dominant person is saying. That is, the dominant person says what they are all thinking but dare not express. As a result, even though they may complain about this person, they value his/her role.

The group may also be using this dominant person as a scapegoat. We have often seen a dominant person saying what others dare not say to the boss. During the meeting they remain silent, letting the boss think the dominant person is the only one who feels that way. After the meeting, team members then go up to the dominant person and say how much they appreciate what he/she said. Unfortunately, this dynamic not only gives the boss a distorted view of the team’s opinions, but enables the team to avoid taking responsibility for their real feelings.

It is possible to reduce domination by a few at meetings. It takes a combination of skill and determination.