Tap into your team's collective wisdom

Dr. Anuradha Chawla | 23 April 2020

Your role as the team’s leader is prepare yourself to intervene actively in discussions where the answers are complex, not black and white, and not easily narrowed down.

The upcoming months will continue to test the mettle of even the strongest businesses. When the market is so complex and expected to be volatile for the foreseeable future, business challenges appear inevitable. As your team’s leader, you cannot be expected to have all the answers. So, the key will be to tap into your team’s collective wisdom. Pooled together, their insights can lead to ingenious and effective solutions.

Despite your best intentions though, the team’s actual collective performance can fall short of its potential. Two things may play out. First, team discussions are not always optimal or can devolve for a variety of reasons, keeping the best ideas from rising to the top. Secondly, the way you typically hold discussions may not work because of the higher stakes and higher ambiguity nature of the current business environment.

So, in this article, I want to share what the psychological research says about some of the conditions you can create as a leader to maximize the chances that the best ideas will surface and be selected despite the high risk, high ambiguity, complex environment. Let’s take a look.

  • How you tee up these discussions will matter. Remember, the situation is complex and ambiguous. Ambiguity often leads to silence. In particular, people don’t want to speak up if they are unsure about the answer or afraid they will be rebuked if they ask a question, challenge, or change the course of a discussion. So, after you have framed the problem to be discussed, you will concurrently need to make an opening statement like, “This is a problem unlike any we have seen before. We will have to figure it out together. It won’t happen right away. It might take some trial and error.” What such a statement tells people upfront is that you see the complexity of the issue, there is no right or wrong answer, and you are ok with an iterative approach.

  • Be explicit about the team’s role. In the above example, you are also stating how you expect the team to participate. Whatever your choice of words, you must be clear that collective collaboration is what you expect. That might mean that while the problem might reside with one function (e.g., supply chain will continue to be strained), you expect everyone to bring their collective expertise to the table. Specific statements can include, “You are here because of your ability to challenge the status quo”, “You are here because of the diversity of perspectives around the table”, or “I expect you to feel obligated to challenge each other”. In all of these statements, you are emphasizing the need to put minds together and you are clarifying how you want the team to do that (e.g., via diversity, debate, idea generation, etc.).

  • Mistakes must surface. Ford’s ex-CEO, Alan Mullaly said it well – “I can’t manage a problem I don’t know exists.” It is important that, right from the get-go, you talk about mistakes and how to quickly address them. It is necessary to frame this at the start of discussions and it bears regular repeating if you want your team to discuss ideas without fear of criticism or reprisal. This can mean saying things like, “I expect you to raise any and every concern you have on your mind”, “We are going to take a trial and error approach”, “Fast fail is the way to do this”, “I want you to find the flaw in your colleagues’/my ideas”, “Once we have a plan in place, we will talk about failures at every meeting”, or “If we have a problem, I want you to bring the people closest to the problem to give us their insights”. Essentially, you need to talk about your inquiry mindset or learning approach towards mistakes. And, what you say cannot just be lip service. If you say all these things and then cannot hold your emotions in check when a mistake does occur, you will have undermined the process.

  • Don’t focus the discussion too quickly. Some teams pride themselves in coming to decisions quickly. In fact, there will likely be a sense of urgency and bias for action your team feels after having had to watch from “the sidelines”, so to speak. While the temptation will be to decide quickly, it is important that you be mindful not to focus the discussion too quickly. Early, when there is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, it is important to ensure that the team is continually broadening the discussion. If it is not naturally occurring, as a leader you will want to ask questions such as, “Who has a different perspective?”, “What are we missing?”, or “What else could we consider?”.

  • When ready, do deepen the discussion. Of course, a discussion has an ebb and flow to it. You may find that a few ideas bubble up to the top in terms of relevance or importance. In those instances, you will want to pay attention, focus and deepen your attention on the matter. Inquiry and curiosity-based questions like, “What leads you to think so?”, “What’s the concern really?”, or “Tell me more” show that you want to dig deeper.

  • Playback is important. Deepening the discussion also means, as a leader, you are playing back what you hear. It might seem cumbersome. However, it is critical that misunderstandings not have a chance to take root and that viable ideas have their airtime. It is especially important if you see a specific idea is not getting enough attention or has been prematurely dismissed. Examples include, “I think I understood the concern to be X and Y…Is that correct?”.

  • Everyone’s voice MUST matter. Finally, during these discussions, as a leader, you will have to be attending to whether everyone’s voice has been heard. While there might be some people who always have great points and you rely on their counsel, in a situation like we are currently encountering, it is important that you pay attention to who is participating and who is not participating. This often requires managing airtime. And, there must be regular encouragement on your part for others to speak up. In some cases, non-executive members on the team are present and may have an idea. Don’t be quick to silence or dismiss them. Giving them a voice will be important because they may see something your team doesn’t.

To summarize, you have a very important role to play as the leader of your team once you begin crucial discussions about “recovery”, “re-entry”, “return to office”, etc. Your role as the team’s leader is prepare yourself to intervene actively in discussions where the answers are complex, not black and white, and not easily narrowed down. In this case, actively intervening will mean everything from asking lots more follow-up questions to taking more detailed notes. Also, your role as a leader will be to ensure that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. Don’t rely on personalities who typically challenge the status quo. Rather, you have to create a dynamic that makes it easy for everyone to be candid. Done well, the collective insights on your team can get you and the team through this difficult period to a stronger, more resilient state. And while the way you interact and lead discussions during this period may feel different than the norm, these are, after all, not normal circumstances.


100 Adelaide St W
Suite 2910
Toronto, ON M5H 1S3
(416) 945-6611

New York

48 Wall Street
Suite 1100
New York, NY 10005
(212) 292-3800