Am I Allowed to Speak?

I’m fascinated by the role of power in meetings. Why? Because it can ruin our interactions. Consider the following situations:

  • A judge forcefully reprimands a juvenile defendant who’s eating chewing gum in “his” courtroom.

  • A doctor listens for 18 seconds to the patient’s story and then shares his diagnosis in a language that no one outside the medical world can understand.

What happens? Powers gets in the way of a meaningful interaction. The defendant will become defiant or shut down completely; the patient will not feel heard and will be less likely to follow the doctor’s prescriptions.

In organizations, power has many shapes and forms.

A good example is the power of agendas. They are useful because they provide structure and order to meetings, but they can be damaging if they’re enforced too rigidly. If checking agenda points becomes more important than the quality of the discussion, people might feel discouraged to ask questions and share important ideas that are outside the scope of the agenda.

Or worse: they become afraid to speak up because they fear repercussions or because they feel that their opinion is irrelevant. 

Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies the phenomenon of psychological safety, explains why this is a serious problem:

“If we aren’t hearing from people we may be missing out on a game-changing idea that could become part of a new product or a new service. Or we might miss an early warning of a threat in the market… The ability for people to come to work and speak up about what they know, what they don’t know, what they see, what they are worried about, is absolutely mission-critical to success in a knowledge economy.”

If you want to address this issue, the design of your meeting is a good place to start.

What’s your place at the table, who gets to speak first and how does the agenda come together? These questions matter.

A powerful example comes from author and surgeon Atul Gawande.

In the hospital where he works, each surgery is preceded by a discussion of the patient’s case. At the start, all attendants who are new to the meeting – from the anesthesiologist to the nurse, to the clinician and the surgeon – have to introduce themselves by stating their name and role.

As Gawande recently explained on The Knowledge Project podcast: “People who haven’t been able to introduce themselves are much less likely to say anything in the course of the meeting. But if you’ve actually been able to hear yourself in the room say: ‘I’m here, this is who I am’. That removes your barrier of wondering whether you’re even allowed to speak.”