When teams come together to brainstorm issues and identify solutions, they achieve the best results when all the participants provide input and feedback. However, the social dynamics of group settings can often interfere with that process. For example, studies have shown that when women are outnumbered by males in a group setting, they typically sit back and listen without making many contributions. Research at Brigham Young University (https://magazine.byu.edu/article/when-women-dont-speak) found that women are significantly disempowered in many business settings — not because people are intentionally exclusive, but because they do not understand how women contribute differently in group settings. Men often fail to take steps to include women in ways that will allow women to contribute most effectively.
Similar dynamics arise when any group is dominated by people who share common characteristics, such as ethnicity, nationality, or language. Those who make up a minority within the group can be inhibited or feel uncomfortable about being themselves and sharing honestly. At the same time, it can be difficult for those in the dominant group to know how to reach out to, engage, and listen to all members of the group.
Providing better opportunities for people to take part creates a more inclusive and participatory environment. We can accomplish this by making the environment safer and less socially difficult for each member of the group.
Virtual collaboration platforms can provide means for everyone’s voice to be heard. For example, a session leader could pose a question to the group in a virtual meeting, and then use a virtual collaboration platform to allow team members to think and post their answers. Letting people share their ideas in a shared workspace allows contributions to be judged on their merit rather than on the basis of who shares or presents an idea. This approach allows ideas to flow from the group all members of the group more easily. Then, once they are written down for all to see, the team can begin evaluating suggestions without being tied down by some of the social realities that limit group participation.
The power of this approach became evident last year as I was conducting a work session for senior executives from a Fortune 50 company. The virtual meeting included people from several nationalities representing the Americas, Asia, and Europe as well as women and men. However, among the large group of executives, gathered only three of the 18 were women.
One of those women was the CFO, a position that should make her a significant and powerful individual within the organization. At one point in the session, she made a great comment. Immediately one of her male peers jumped in and challenged her idea. As I watched the video feed, I saw her literally shrink back in her chair. Even though she was the CFO of this global company, she pulled away. It seemed her instincts as a woman told her that this social setting did not provide the right place or time for her to assert herself.
As the facilitator, I stepped in. I did not directly call out her challenger, saying instead, “We’ve got some interesting ideas floating here. Let’s all use our digital collaboration tool to capture what we’re thinking.” I then told the CFO we would first record her idea so it would not be lost. As more people posted their comments, others became supportive of her idea simply by seeing how the different suggestions on the digital whiteboard aligned with hers. Ultimately, her idea persisted despite that initial objection from one team member. The digital platform provided the tool where a great idea that was just about lost because of normal group dynamics between women and men was not only captured but also advanced forward.
That experience highlighted for me in a very practical way how a digital collaboration tool can be used to mitigate typical social dynamics of groups. Digital platforms can encourage better participation and provide a more inclusive environment where people can feel safe and comfortable contributing, ultimately leading to higher quality results.