How to neutralize a meeting tyrant

February 11, 2013: 10:48 AM ET

A minority of people do a majority of the talking at most work meetings. Here's how you can stop these conversation hogs in their tracks.Businessman on Pedestal Holding Blank Paper --- Image by © Images.com/Corbis

By Leigh Thompson

FORTUNE -- The next time you go to a team meeting, surreptitiously get out a sheet of paper and bring a watch. Record who talks and for how long, and at the end of the meeting, add up how many minutes each person had the floor. If your meetings are anything like the hundreds studied by management scientists, you probably noticed that a minority of people did a majority of the talking. The rest of the folks did not get a word in edgewise!

This problem is known as the uneven communication problem. There are a few dominant people in most groups who control and monopolize the discussion. For example, in a typical four-person group, two people do 62% of the talking. In a six-person group, three people do 70% of the talking; and in an eight-person group, three people do 70% of the talking. The topper is that the dominant people do not realize this. In fact, they vehemently argue that the meetings are egalitarian. They lack self-awareness.

The question becomes: Why are the rest of us here? A dysfunctional self-fulfilling prophecy starts to unfold week after week in these meetings: the dominant people begin to feel that the silent people are unprepared or simply don't have any opinions, so they dominate more; similarly, the quiet folks feel that it is futile to try to be heard, so they stop trying. Left unchecked, this creates a self-perpetuating doom loop in the group. Team members may blame one another for the unsatisfactory team meeting. In order to get the most out of collaboration, it is important to neutralize the too-dominant people and encourage the too-submissive people. However, just saying, "Shut up" or "Speak up" does not work. We need a more effective technique.

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How can teams and team leaders deal with the uneven communication problem? Well, admonishing people to be brief, let others talk, or simply to monitor themselves is ineffective. To neutralize the dominant personalities in any group -- I call this forced democracy -- I offer three techniques: brainwriting, nominal group technique (NGT), and cyberstorming.

Brainwriting

Let's get this straight: Brainwriting is not brainstorming. Brainwriting is the simultaneous written generation of ideas. I use two simple rules in my work with teams: (1) no guessing and (2) no confessions. In practical terms, this means that no one can attempt to determine who came up with what idea, nor can people confess which idea they authored. Rather, all ideas are anonymous.

It is my custom to arrive at a brainwriting session with several hundred index cards and make it clear that each idea should be written on its own card in (reasonably!) legible writing. I pass out a generous number of cards. I like to keep brainwriting episodes short, no longer than 10 minutes at a stretch -- even five minutes works well.

After the brainwriting episode, I collect all the cards and post them on a wall or, if a wall is not available, I have the group members sort them into piles according to general themes or similarity. The next step is to vote on which ideas people like the most. I like to do the voting privately.

Once the votes are added up, I flag the top four to six ideas. At this point, I often like to spontaneously form four to six groups and give each group a flip chart and 20 minutes to take that idea to the "next level." Each group then has five minutes to present the flip chart with their results to the rest of the group. I typically pass the index cards around and ask everyone to give a piece of advice or suggestion feedback to each group. The groups now have a stack of cards to use to further refine their ideas.

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Using this iterative technique, brainwriting can be woven into interactive team meetings in a way that keeps everyone engaged. The group is constantly cycling between independent idea generation, posting, voting, elaborating, and refining. I've rarely encountered teams that are resistant to brainwriting. Most people are amazed at how greatly the volume of ideas is increased.

Nominal Group Technique (NGT)

Thompson10617_300dpiThe nominal group technique is a lot like brainwriting. However, it is a more extreme version, in which people, rather than working in interactive groups, perform completely independently (i.e., in a nominal group) on a task or creative challenge, after which their responses or output are pooled. For this reason, NGT is ideally suited for distance-challenged groups that don't have the luxury of face-to-face time.

The research findings overwhelmingly indicate that nominal groups outperform interactive groups at brainstorming tasks, particularly when the problem is specialized. Yet companies still favor group interaction for some reason. Some argue that groups are better at selecting ideas, or that real group work is more satisfying. However, there is no scientific support for this. Not only do nominal groups outperform real groups in terms of idea generation, they are just as likely to select superior ideas and are just as satisfied with the process as interactive groups.

Cyberstorming

Cyberstorming -- also known as electronic brainstorming -- emerged when companies and teams realized that people can interact meaningfully via computers. In a cyberstorming session, members are not colocated, but they are connected via computer or Internet. In an electronic brainstorming session (EBS), team members are in the same room, but instead of verbalizing ideas (and competing for the floor) -- group members simply type their ideas into a database that is immediately displayed on a large screen.

Cyberstorming and electronic brainstorming elegantly solve the problem of production blocking -- the interference that occurs when team members compete with one another to speak at the same time. There is nothing to prevent members from verbalizing ideas, but only those that get entered are recorded. This means that the overly dominant personalities do not usurp the meeting. Cyberstorming also provides a cognitive stimulus to team members. Because the ideas are immediately displayed, they can spur new ideas in members reading the screen display.

Another advantage is that members' ideas are anonymous. There is some evidence that more controversial ideas are produced by members of anonymous electronic groups than by members of non-anonymous groups. Moreover, anonymous electronic groups produce fewer redundant ideas than do non-anonymous electronic groups.

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In short, brainwriting, nominal group technique, and cyberstorming are all, hands down, superior to the typical face-to-face team meeting, although nominal brainstorming groups seem to have the edge. Yet, faulty beliefs about the efficacy of face-to-face brainstorming still exist. Organizations continue to argue that face-to-face interaction is more rewarding and satisfying. If anything, the opposite is true.

As you might imagine, there is some concern that electronic brainstorming might lead to a loss of informal face-to-face communication. And there is indeed reason to be concerned. Teams that abolish all face-to-face meetings run the risk of creating an antagonistic atmosphere. One Silicon Valley company abolished its weekly face-to-face meetings because they were considered to be too bloated -- a waste of time. Yet, this ultimately resulted in a toxic workplace. Thus, if the team happens to be colocated, go ahead and set up meetings -- but use the structure outlined -- rather than just having an anything-goes free-for-all.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration by Leigh Thompson.

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