The teams where I am happiest are the ones that employ regular, thoughtful pauses. After a moment, an astute project manager might ask what a quiet member of the team thinks. They answer with the insight the discussion needed, and the ball rolls on.
These are teams where hypotheticals are encouraged, and people can think aloud without worry of being "in the weeds."
Cost, complexity, and scheduling are shared pillars that everyone should have the ability to question. In doing so, understanding between team members is reinforced, and the project's deliverable is likely made stronger as well.
Nothing is more contrary to a well-oiled project team than ego. To be in a room—or on a call—where you feel only the loudest and biggest are heard is the death of honest, open collaboration.
In my experience, many managers (project or general) do not feel comfortable with the uncertainty necessary to facilitate open, non-judgemental meeting spaces. To realize bulleted points in an agenda cannot be developed for each moment of a conversation truly is a tough pill for many to swallow. The result is project teams (and entire companies) assembled largely from people who are forced to over-promise, under-question, and scramble to deliver.
Do you wonder if you will be unfairly judged when asking a question on your team, or any of the teams you're a part of? If so, your energy is being dangerously rationed. The actual problem your team is there to solve has become secondary to appearances and politics. Not to mention this sort of thing suggests deep toxicity in the workplace.
Teams that are filled with members who don't ask the questions they deeply want to are tragic. If these patterns go on long enough, team members who were once curious can lose sight of the questions that mattered to them in the first place. They go "heads down", and promise to "circle back" at a later date. Fear like this has no place in the workplace, and no one should be made to feel so small.
If you're a part of a team that suffers from these dark patterns, consider these strategies. Even if you aren't in a position of leadership, there is almost certainly a way you can help steer things in a more positive direction:
- Adopt a position of renewed curiosity. With the purest intention you can muster, try asking some hypothetical questions during the least tumultuous moments of a meeting.
- Gently ask the quietest person in a meeting what they think.
- Eschew titles and seniority in favor of curiosity. Ask the newest member of a team what they think about a longstanding issue.
- Send out an email with meeting notes, asking for feedback on topics that may have been hurried over.
- Be liberal with your @mentions in Slack or other chat tools. Encourage conversation and set an example of inclusion.
And of course, if all else fails, or if you're simply ready to move on: search for a healthier place to work. No one deserves to be unhappy, especially when the grass is truly greener.
Remember that it's never too late to take a step towards joining the hundreds of thousands of people (citation needed) who recognize that kindness and curiosity are the fuel for greatness.