When considering a property to buy to complete my transfer to Melbourne for work, I was advised by the vendor’s agent to “dress smartly at the auction, as this is a prestige area.” Standing there in my T-shirt, I stared back at him blankly. I guess I did look a bit feral, but it caught me off-guard and for a moment I felt censured and somehow inadequate. I’ve felt that same feeling at times in business environments too, and I detest the way it inhibits me.
Of course status is a key driver in society, but this is magnified in a hierarchical company like a bank, where levels of authority are ingrained (especially for risk and pricing controls). I find in meetings or workshops where you are working to an outcome, just the presence of senior leaders can be enough to stifle conversation. This is such a shame where I work now because our senior leaders have all been deliberately chosen due to their ability to relate to people at all levels and be approachable.
So why would status continue to be an issue? Largely it is just a cultural legacy which will take time to change. It’s also got a bit to do with the adage that “every conversation is a job interview.” When people are careful about what they say, they are usually not saying much and when they do it is nothing controversial. There is also an ongoing assumption that senior leaders have all the answers. They don’t, and where I work, most freely admit that. If they had access to all their team’s ideas and perspectives, it would make their jobs easier.
So particularly as an in-house organisational facilitator, controlling the conversation flow to hear from everyone is your job. Putting everyone on an even footing is your aim. There are many techniques that are effective, and here are some:
a) Break up the participants into small groups with visible randomness. This is a neutralising influence by making seniority less meaningful.
b) Give people roles. Perhaps this will include handing the senior people the role of ‘group coach’, but that can unravel easily unless you preposition this clearly with them before the session.
c) Ensure your language is inclusive, encouraging and emphasises everyone has something to give.
d) Design brainstorming so everyone gets a go.
e) Use multi-voting for when value judgements are required. The easiest way is to give everyone 3 ‘votes’, use the existing visual brainstorming results the group has contributed, and allow everyone to place three ticks next to what they consider the best suggestions (they can use their 3 ticks in any way).
f) Feed opportunities to the senior leaders to get them to directly ask questions about what everyone else thinks. This lessens the pressure on them to be the subject matter expert in the room.
g) Facilitate bravely to show the human side of the senior leaders. (An example: Last week, I got everyone to cheer wildly for a senior leader guest speaker when she walked into the room. Real rock-star treatment! It was a great hour’s conversation after that.)
Sometimes it is difficult to compose yourself as a facilitator around seniority. The C-Pose, which I learnt from Colin James, is a physical way to circumvent these nerves. Purely about posture, it requires you to imagine someone is pulling your spine upwards with a hook. You also push back down into your heels and imagine someone gently pulling your shoulders back. It really brings a physical sense of bearing, authority and status; kind of like a CEO, CFO or CIO.
A final thought: the best form of status is being known for respecting everyone’s right to be heard. That’s why I can stand to my full height when I facilitate.