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Let employees think a minute to make them more comfortable expressing thoughts and ideas around you. This play improves your leadership skills, team rapport, and your team’s work environment.
Give people time to think before giving you a response to a big decision. Requests for assistance, proposed changes to their roles or responsibilities, and other shocks often require time to process. Let them think for a few moments instead of expecting an immediate response.
Why We Let Them Think a Minute
Not everyone is capable of making good decisions on the spot. Especially when there's a power differential at play (e.g., a supervisor asking a junior employee a question), team members may find themselves feeling nervous, worried about potential judgement on their statements or decisions. Giving team members time to think alleviates some of that stress. Allowing them to respond on their own terms—minutes or hours later—gives them some power in determining how to approach a big question or decision.
How We Let Them Think a Minute
When you ask a question of a team member, take notice of body cues that may indicate they are uncomfortable. Fidgeting, looking away or toward others in the room, slouching, turning away, or crossing their arms may be indicators of nervousness or defensiveness. If you see any of these signs, reassure them by saying they don't have to answer right now, but you'd appreciate an answer in a few moments. In addition to body cues, you may notice hesitation in a person's voice, numerous “umm” or “ahh” sounds mixed in with their answer, or even a deferral to someone else for an answer. Ask if they would feel more comfortable considering the question before giving a final answer. The amount of time you offer for a response will change depending on the situation. A question that requires reviewing data may take a team member anywhere from several minutes to a few hours. A big decision that requires them to make an assessment of multiple options and provide an informed recommendation may take anywhere from several hours to several days.
Team members will feel more at ease with forming their best responses, versus rushing to an answer. Additionally, they will be less likely to be embarrassed or concerned by the responses to any decisions they make. Additionally, once team members recognize that you are willing to give them time to form better answers to questions, they will ask for this time when they need it. If they feel they need to dig deeper on an issue before providing a definitive response, they will ask for the time. In return, your team will help you make better decisions. Your responsiveness to team members' needs is a demonstration of trust, compassion, and curiosity. Team members will recognize that you are asking for the best answer, not necessarily the fastest. Also, with enough practice, team members will experience increased autonomy and mastery in decision-making, and their ability to form and express complex opinions will increase over time. You will be able to rely on them to make more important decisions, decreasing their dependency on you for day-to-day decisions and giving you time to solve higher-level problems.
Dan is a vice president with a team of 4 directors, each with their own team of 4-6 people. Dan presents a problem at their weekly management meeting: “Our entire team is fully utilized on existing projects, but we have a new project we are contractually obligated to start next week. There's not enough time to hire for this. What can we do to get a team started on the new project?” he asks. The room is silent. One director looks down at his feet. Another turns to his peer expecting an answer. Dan senses the discomfort in the room. “We don't have to have a plan right this moment,” Dan says, “but I would appreciate your thoughts by morning. Let's schedule a followup to share ideas at 9am. Sound good?” The directors nod and return to their offices to come up with solutions. The next morning, everyone has at least one idea worth Dan's consideration. They finally settle on a plan that requires cooperation between the director's teams to fully staff the new project. The combined team fulfills the company's contractual obligations with an acceptable extension in timelines for other projects. This collaborative approach to building a new team gives the directors time to find appropriate new hires to permanently increase capacity. Dan is relieved to have a reasonable solution that meets his objectives. The directors are glad they had time to consider possibilities before making a decision, resulting in the best possible plan given their constraints.