How often have you sat in a meeting, only to hear the voices of those who were the most dominant or aggressive run show? Meanwhile, some of the best ideas go unheard because they belong to those who are less libidinous of corporate limelight. Most employees are not accustomed to the open exchange that occurs within a workplace without hierarchy. They are instead used to carrying out instructions, closely following orders, and receiving reprimands for anything that is less than perfect job completion. John Kopicki, CEO and president at Muhlenberg Medical Center, recalls both frantically and patiently waiting for people to express themselves about company policy (Lewin & Regine, 2000). St. Luke’s Andy Law observed that even after he had abolished rigid hierarchy within his company, employees still wanted him to make decisions that they alone had the authority to render. Lewin and Regine in The Soul at Work argue that truly great leaders invite role reversal – the “human vulnerability as part of their employees we.” Conversely, bureaucrats foster shared silence in order to avoid humiliation and embarrassment.
So, how to conduct business in a civil fashion? The whole point of managing diversity is to draw on the uniqueness of each employee. If people feel they must censor what they say and how they act, the major benefit of diversity is lost (Rice, 1994). The goal of diversity management is to draw forth hidden workforce treasure by capitalizing on its multiplicity of perspectives. I love the way that Exxon Baytown handled an incident of multicultural communication within a meeting. A workgroup noticed that in departmental meetings one of its engineers did not contribute anything to the meeting. She was frustrated at her inability to say anything in the expected rapid fire fashion (which characterizes speech in this culture), and the group was similarly deprived of her contribution. Instead of considering this individual the “problem,” the organization hired a communication consultant who learned that this Malaysian employee (due to her culture) felt that she had to roll words on her tongue seven times before speaking. As a solution, this employee was then allotted time at the end of each meeting to express her viewpoints, which served a two pronged purpose: (1) it allowed her free expression while giving her time to compose her thoughts; and (2) it provided a reflective viewpoint to the group on what had transpired in the meeting.
It is the mandate of the meeting chair to ensure the following:
- That all employees who wish to speak are heard
- That individuals in a meeting do not experience humiliation from the bullying or mobbing behavior of other participants
- That individuals violating #2 be subjected to (at the very least) verbal sanction
- That individuals who are reluctant to speak are encouraged, supported, and appreciated for their contribution
Lewin, R., & Regine, B. (2000). The soul at work: Embracing complexity science for business success.
Rice, R. (1994). How to make diversity pay. Fortune, 130, pp. 78-83.