Reluctance to speak is a common organizational problem. A classic challenge for knowledge managers is getting people to break the silence on calls and in meetings. It can also be difficult to line up presenters, get people to attend, and hear from more than a few voices during the calls. Here are some of the reasons for this, and what to do about them.
Lying low: There once was a time when corporate layoffs were not as commonplace as they are now. When people’s jobs became less secure, this increased their desire to stay out of the spotlight. The prevailing wisdom is to keep your head down, don’t call attention to yourself by speaking up or expressing an opinion, and don’t rock the boat. To overcome this, recognize those who are active, so that community participation is associated with high performers, not with layoff candidates.
Attention deficit: Another trend is the rise of multitasking, and as a result, not paying attention to what is being said on a call. In this case, people hope that their names will not be called, and may be reluctant to ask a question or make a comment due to the fact that they have missed some or all of the details of the discussion. To help overcome this, try to have engaging speakers, interesting visuals, and a brisk pace.
Wait, wait, don’t speak: It’s human nature to wait for someone else to speak first. Once the ice has been broken, the floodgates often open up. This frequently occurs in face-to-face meetings; after the first question is asked, many others are asked, and then time runs out. I haven’t seen this happen as much on calls. But it is worth trying to prime the pump by asking a few participants to ask questions to set the example for others. Planting questions may help get the discussion going.
Do it in private: Some people will type questions into a private chat, rather than ask them in public. This is similar to the people who come up to talk one-on-one with the presenter at the end of a conference session. Offer this channel, and then voice the questions on the call without naming the people who submitted them.
Wasting time: Community members may be wary of the stigma associated with spending time on a voluntary activity such as attending a community call. Community participation can be viewed as a frivolous waste of time, and not doing real work. Get the support of respected leaders for community participation, or even better, get those leaders to attend themselves and to communicate their wish that others do the same. Provide summaries, recordings, and presentation decks from calls so that others can see what they are missing, and to demonstrate the value of the calls.
Too busy: Some people are join-only members. They have good intentions, but rarely actually attend community calls or meetings. They prioritize other mundane, routine, or time-sensitive tasks before learning, sharing, and connecting on a community call or at a local meeting. Remind community members that they are expected to do more than join, and remind them of each call the day before and right before it starts. You can also offer continuing education or learning hours for community participation, which may count towards personal development goals.
Lurkers anonymous: These are better than join-only members, in that they will attend calls, but not speak up. As long as they are paying attention and learning, this is fine. They may not be contributing to the call, but they are benefiting from it, and that helps justify the effort of scheduling and hosting the call. Never disparage lurkers; instead, thank them for attending.
Seen but not heard: Some people prefer to type into a chat window, Twitter chat, or instant message. They have something to say, but they prefer to do it by text rather than by speaking. It pays to provide a channel for this, and to monitor that channel to relay questions and comments to the presenter. This can be the webinar tool’s chat window, a predetermined hashtag in Twitter, or a whiteboard or similar tool. If you can offer an anonymous channel, even more people are likely to use it. You can also solicit questions in advance by email or online forum, and then you can read these questions without using the names of those who submitted them.
Any questions? Few are motivated to speak up if you ask, “are there any questions?” during a presentation. Instead, ask more specific questions of the audience. For example, “Has anyone experienced what the presenter just described?” or “What are some other techniques being used by our community members?” You can also try calling on people by name to offer their thoughts, but some will be unprepared to do so. Once when I tried this on a call, I heard a barrage of exit tones as participants hung up in fear that they would be called next. So be prepared for that to happen and mute the exit tones.
Fear factor: People may avoid talking on calls because they are afraid they will be contradicted or attacked. They may be unsure that what they have to say is worthwhile. And most people are afraid of appearing ignorant, or worse, looking like a complete idiot. Try to establish a supportive tone, use humor, and celebrate those who overcome their fear to say what’s on their mind.
Here are methods to encourage people to deliver presentations and to overcome the common reluctance to ask questions.
Getting people to present
It’s often hard to get volunteers to present or lead a discussion, for many of the same reasons people don’t attend or speak up on community calls. Here are five ways you can appeal to potential presenters:
- You may have submitted proposals to speak at conferences, but have not been accepted; here’s your chance to present, receive helpful feedback, tune your message, and hone your presentation skills.
- You appreciate what others have presented, and would like to reciprocate by taking your turn.
- You want to help keep the community active, varied, and lively.
- You have presented before, and have something new to share.
- If you are reluctant to volunteer because you don’t think you have anything special to share, know that you aren’t alone. Once you get past that concern and actually present, you will find that the other members will appreciate your efforts, and you will be more comfortable presenting in this and other settings.
Reluctance to Ask
When someone needs to find the answer to a question, what do they tend to do?
- Try searching their hard drive, an FAQ database, or the Internet
- Turn to the person sitting next to them
- Call or instant message a trusted colleague
- Send an email to a few people or a distribution list
If the first four options don’t work, they give up.
The option that would likely work the best, but is not used nearly enough, is:
Ask in the most relevant community of practice discussion board or enterprise social network (ESN) group.
It’s a paradox that the one option with the greatest chance of success is the least likely to be tried. Why is this? One common reason is that people are afraid of asking a question in public because it may expose their ignorance, make them appear incompetent, or subject them to embarrassment.
When I receive a question via email, instant message, private ESN message, phone, or text message, I reply that I will be glad to answer the question if it is posted to a specific community, and I provide a link to that community’s discussion board or ESN group. I give three reasons for making this request:
- It will allow additional answers to be posted, which may be better than mine, or provide additional information beyond what I can offer.
- It will allow others to benefit from the exchange.
- It will provide a public record of the exchange, which can later be searched for, linked to, and reused.
However, people will often resist this request, and either fail to post their question, or respond with the following reasons why they don’t want to post in public:
- These questions are more back-end questions, not front-end questions
- I just need a quick answer
- I figured you would have the answer
- I don’t want to bother with all that
- I didn’t know where to post
These are really just different ways of saying:
- I’m embarrassed
- I don’t want to appear ignorant
- I should know the answer
- No one else needs to know that I had to ask
- I don’t want to bother figuring out where to post
Some people simply will not ask in public. You can help these people by posting on their behalf, answering their question, and sending them a private message linking to the posted question and answer. You can do this without mentioning them by name, but if you copy them on the reply and don’t explicitly state that they asked the question, they may be willing to ask directly the next time.
Here are some additional ways to encourage people to ask questions in public:
- Make it easy to figure out where to post a question by having a list of communities, easy-to-use search, and a single obvious community or ESN group for each important topic
- Provide ways to ask questions on behalf of others, including anonymous ask-the-expert tools
- Redirect queries you receive, and ask others who frequently receive queries to do the same
- Ask call centers, support hotlines, help desk operators, and contact email box owners to answer in communities, not by email, instant message, or other private channels
- Use a combination of ESN groups and FAQ lists to reply to queries — copying Q&A from the ESN group into the FAQ list, and then linking to the FAQ list the next time a similar question is posted
- Make sure questions are answered — people who are brave enough to overcome their fear of asking in the open should be rewarded for doing so by receiving useful, timely, and varied answers
- Recognize those who ask in public by thanking and praising them for doing so
- Provide a points recognition system, and give points to those who post questions and to those who provide answers
- Train people on how to find the right place to ask questions and the most effective ways to ask for help; remind them they should acknowledge those who provide answers by replying back in the same thread as the initial post.
The above is an excerpt from my book published by Lucidea Press, Proven Practices for Promoting a Knowledge Management Program, Chapter 10: “Nurture a Knowledge-Sharing Culture”. Please also read my posts offering advice and insights drawn from many years as a KM practitioner.