Imagine: you’re at a meeting where you present an idea, and no one comments on it—you only hear “crickets” . . . until a few minutes later when someone else restates the same idea as if it were his own, and everyone chimes in about this other person’s great idea. How often have you witnessed this? Has this happened to you?
How do you break this pattern to get your ideas heard?
When a coaching client is looking for help in finding his or her voice, I start by digging for more information: Does this happen only to you? Does silence only follow the ideas floated by women? What is the gender make-up of the team, the corporate culture? Does anyone ever comment on this pattern during the meeting or afterward? Does it happen to some of the men as well, but you just haven’t noticed?
Before we can begin to solve any problem, we need to make sure we are solving the right one. In the scenario above, I would guide you to reflect on whether this was only happening to you, and ask you to notice what your colleagues are doing differently. We’d then look at what you are doing and thinking in the meetings. I’d prompt you to consider ways you might shift your behavior—your tone of voice, your body language. You might then reflect on the story you’re telling yourself about this pattern, and your assumptions around this story. We might look back at other times in your life when you noticed this pattern.
It is so important to tease out the conditions under which this happens, and to notice what you are thinking before you present your idea. Are you assuming that your idea will be knocked down, are you concerned that others will judge your idea harshly? Are you presenting it with confidence? How loud is your inner critic?
We would then design ways for you to quiet your inner critic and change the narrative around presenting your ideas.
On the other hand, if the pattern happens only to the women in the room, or only to members of one department, then we would need to look at the broader system. Are there other examples of bias in this organization? Assuming this pattern is ongoing, and no one has spoken out about it, the first thing to do is name the problem, and then gather allies to craft a solution.
One effective strategy that targets this pattern is called “amplification”, a tactic deployed by the women in President Obama’s administration. Amplification was designed to get the women’s ideas noticed: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own. We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. . . . Obama noticed . . . and began calling more often on women and junior aides.”
Amplification made headlines nine months ago, and is now finding its way into practice outside of politics, empowering women at all levels. A client who is a middle manager at a biotech company has encouraged her team to practice this strategy, and she’s noticed a shift in the number of women speaking up and seeing their ideas take hold. She’s even drafted some men to help amplify their female colleagues’ ideas.
Amplification can work to solve this type of problem where any group is not being heard. It works because it targets the heart of the problem: the unconscious bias around that group’s contributions. You can identify the presence of unconscious bias when a person’s stated beliefs do not match their behavior. If you were to ask the people in your meeting if they valued all their colleagues’ ideas equally, and many of them replied “Yes, of course”, yet their behavior did not mirror their stated belief, then you are facing bias of some kind. The reason unconscious bias is so hard to shake—and so insidious—is because we’re not aware of it and we may even deny it exists. But to the individuals who are silenced, whether they are women, or junior members on a team, or colleagues of different ethnic or racial backgrounds—the negative impact is very real.
Unconscious bias exists in all of us. By acknowledging the bias, which elevates it to a conscious level, we can make choices on how to change our behavior. This is where a coach can help you see what you might otherwise be missing.
If you notice a dysfunctional pattern such as this in your meetings, it might be time to get a coach. By partnering with your coach, you will isolate the conditions under which it is occurring, and how you might be contributing to the problem. Organizational issues are tricky and bias does exist. Working with a coach will ensure you learn to advocate for yourself and feel empowered to assert your ideas with confidence; you don’t have to go it alone.