How to Get Your Employees To Actually Participate in Group Discussions

How many times have you had a meeting with your employees—either your direct reports or a large group of employees—where you threw out a brainstorming question and all you got back was the sound of crickets? Probably more times than you care to admit.

It’s incredibly frustrating, isn’t it? You thought you were doing a good thing, harnessing more brains, giving your people a chance to speak into the direction of your company (after all, you’ve read that employees want to have some say in what happens at their companies), yet all you got back was the sound of silence (or one or two ideas).

In your brain, this makes no sense. If you were an employee and your boss asked a wide-open question like, “What would you like to see our company do or become over the next twelve months?” you’d have a ton of ideas. Of if he/she said, “We’d like to land XYZ company (or develop a new product), does anyone here have any ideas?” you’d be quick to respond.

So, what gives? What gives is that you’re thinking like you. As the leader of your business, this is what you think about and care about. It’s how you think. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why you have your own business. However, that is not how most of your employees think. Moreover, if they did, they might be leading their own companies.

Well, if that’s true (and it is), does that mean you’ll never get a lot of engagement from your employees? No. It just means you’re using the wrong strategies. So, if you’d like to turn that around, here are a couple of different ideas you can use to ratchet up the level of participation you get from your employees when you ask them for ideas.

I. Break Your Larger Group Down To Groups of 3-4

As a leader, you probably don’t have a lot of difficulty speaking up in a large group. After all, the chance to influence a large group of people is what we leaders live for. However, most people aren’t like that. If you put a group of fifteen or twenty people in a room, you’ll usually find that maybe three or four people will speak up—which means that around 75-80% won’t. Not great odds if you want to harness more brains.

On the other hand, if you were to break that group of twenty down into five groups of four and ask them the same question, with maybe fifteen to twenty minutes to discuss amongst themselves—and to come up with ten or more ideas, which they need to whittle down to their top three to share with the rest of the group—you’ll get infinitely more participation and ideas.

In groups of four, even those who are more reticent to speak up in a group, will usually participate (especially if you have a leader in each group whose job is to help elicit ideas from each person). While it’s easy to remain quiet in a group of twenty, it’s a lot harder to do that in a group of three or four. Note: Once you start hitting five to seven people in a small group, it gets infinitely easier for some people to not participate.

So, if you’d like to generate more participation at your next meeting, break your larger group down into smaller teams of three to four people and have them work on a solution which they then need to report back to the group on.

II. Focus on Solving Problems Over Creating Ideas

As leaders, we have a natural tendency to want to focus on the future, which makes complete sense since leadership is a forward-leaning practice (i.e. you can’t lead people somewhere if you don’t know where that place is).

However, most people aren’t forward-thinking. The reality is that over 70% are rear-view mirror thinkers. Their natural orientation isn’t toward the future, it’s toward the past. Which means that when you’re asking them a wide-open question about what could be, you’re not working with them as they’re naturally wired.

A better option is to ask them to help fix a problem. For example, let’s say that your historic return rate is 3%. However, over the past quarter, that return rate has skyrocketed up to 9%. Asking your employees (in small groups) to brainstorm and come up with ideas for how to return your return rate back to 3% or less will probably elicit a lot more ideas than asking them to brainstorm ideas for a new product.

In other words, it’s a lot easier to work with how people are naturally wired than it is to ask them to work in a way that stresses them out (i.e. goes against their natural wiring).

So, if you’d like to get your team more engaged during your meetings, try focusing on solving problems (over creating new ideas). Then once they get used to participating more frequently in your meetings, you can spring a forward-oriented question on them every now and then.

III. Focus on Issues That Are Closer to Their Work and Interests

Everyone is driven by self-interest. You are. I am. Your employees are.

For example, chances are you’re interested in strategy level questions related to your company because, well, it’s your job. However, unless you’re in a video-oriented business, chances are that you’re probably not that interested in what codec your company should use for the videos you host on your website.

Again, it’s hard for most of us to think like other people. But when we’re asking some of the big picture strategic level questions we ask of our employees, it’s like we’re asking them a codec question for us (“Should we use H.264 or M-PEG 4 or Lossless or …?”). Just as your eyes glaze over that codec question, that’s how your employees feel about some of the questions you ask them in your meetings.

This means that a lot of the questions you’d like to ask, shouldn’t be asked to the whole group. Why? Because they’re not interested and it doesn’t directly affect their day-to-day work. Even though you’d like your “technical programmers” (using a generic group to make this point) to engage in the sales process, most of them will be far less interested in a sales-oriented question than a technical one.

In other words, if you want to raise the participation level of your employees, work with their self-interest. When you ask a wide-open question, make sure it’s a question closer to them than to you.

IV. Give Them Prep Time

While some personality types love brainstorming and coming up with ideas on the spot, the vast majority of people don’t.

For years, I used to get frustrated with my staff on this issue until one day I figured this principle out. So, here’s what I’d do. Our weekly staff meetings were on Wednesdays. So, on the Friday before, I’d create the agenda for next Wednesday’s staff meeting. This way, my staff knew five days ahead of time what the brainstorming questions were going to be.

In addition, I’d give them concrete expectations. “Bring three ideas for how to solve XYZ problem.” That way, when we began the discussion, I wasn’t the only one who had thought about the problem beforehand.

Note: One caveat to this process. If you’re like me and you’re naturally good on your feet with coming up with ideas, you may want to do what I had to do … not come up with answers to your brainstorming questions before the meeting.

Why? Because if I came into a meeting with a list of ideas I had created before the meeting, I’d totally dominate the conversation and drive it toward one of my solutions—and my team quickly figured out, “Oh, Bruce already knows what he wants us to do.” So, to avoid that, I discovered that I had to discipline myself to not think of the answers ahead of time and to give them enough lead time so that it was a fair and profitable conversation.

Regardless, that change to giving my staff days to think about a problem or question—and to coming to the meeting with several ideas already written out—made all the difference in the world.

V. Bonus: Give Them Some Starter Material

If you haven’t done much research on creativity, most creativity experts will tell you that it’s infinitely easier to create when you start with something than it is to start with nothing. For example, if you were trying to create a new watch like Apple just announced this week, it would be infinitely easier for you and your team to start the process by throwing out a bunch of watches on a table and having your team play with them before asking the “How can we create a better watch?” question.

Likewise, if you’re asking your people to come up with some new ideas, you might want to think about what kinds of information would help kickstart their brains. For example, if you wanted to come up with some new ideas for improving your customer service, you might take your entire team out someplace or ask them to go to a retail or hospitality establishment this week and notice every moment where they were evaluating their customer service experience for themselves—either as a plus or a minus. Once that have that starter material, they’ll be far more engaged in answering the customer service conversation at your business.

Or, if you’re discussing your competitive advantages, you could have them look up the websites of three or four of your competitors and observe what those companies listed as their competitive advantages. Having done that exercise, their brains will be far more prepared for when you ask them about some new ideas as to what your competitive advantages could be.

Remember, it’s infinitely easier to create something when you start from something than it is when you start with nothing.

Well, there you have it. Four ideas and a bonus idea for how you can increase the engagement of your employees when you’re having group discussions.

The only question left is, which idea are you going to implement this week?

To your accelerated success!

P.S. If you have some other ideas for increasing engagement, make sure you add them in the comments section below (or click here >> if you’re reading this by RSS or email)