gurus often urge team leaders to engage in open, free-flowing communication with their workgroups. But some managers go too far.
In an effort to ensure everyone understands the issues at hand, some managers waste time telling a team what it already knows. What’s worse, the group may wind up discussing trivial or ancillary subjects that divert attention from higher priorities.
The best teams share new information and then get to work rather than rehash old news, according to a recent study of about 4,800 teams published in Journal of Applied Psychology. High-performing groups also focus on answering specific questions rather than trying to reach consensus.
“What this suggests is that teams who talk more amongst themselves aren’t necessarily sharing useful information,” says lead researcher Jessica Mesmer-Magnus, assistant professor of management at the University of North Carolina. “Therefore, they’re not actually coming to a better result. Rather, it’s more important what the teams are talking about, than how much they are talking.”
Effective team leaders thus need to impose a tight structure on team discussions to prevent an aimless gabfest. By directing participants to examine critical questions that cry out for solutions, a manager can keep everyone on track.
To focus the group’s attention on what matters most, present the primary challenge that the team faces in the form of a question. Then write it on a whiteboard at the beginning of each meeting.
If the conversation strays off course, point to the question so that it serves as a visual reminder. Whenever the group arrives at a possible answer or solution, write it below the question.
Use broad, unrestrictive language that gives you more options to act. If you’re tempted to stifle debate among your staff, you might resort to words such as “can’t,” “won’t” or “don’t.” It’s better to resist hasty declarations. Instead, explain your “concerns” or “reservations” in a way that signals disapproval while inviting dialogue. Even if you wind up disagreeing or denying a request, employees will appreciate your willingness to listen and learn.