illuminating pathways to change

How to get more “hands up” in team meetings

You know the scenario … Someone (possibly the boss) asks “Who wants to take the lead on this?” and then … Crashing Silence! A wall of blank faces or to avoid eye contact people suddenly develop an intense fascination with their fingernails or an urge to rummage through documents OR ….

… The silence keeps up long enough for the boss to say “OK I’ll do it” and then the window of opportunity for development and shared responsibility is missed OR ….

… The usual person puts their hand up. This person is probably already overstretched but they volunteer through habit or an over-developed sense of responsibility. Over time they can become resentful about how much work they have. Meanwhile others become resentful that they didn’t get the opportunity (even if they were asked). There could be many underlying reasons for the above scenario. But let’s focus on the impact on the whole team when people are reluctant to step up and take responsibility for something.

When working on team development projects with clients I often use the KGI (Klein Group Instrument for Effective Leadership and Participation in Teams). The KGI explores people’s patterns of group behaviour along four critical dimensions – Leadership, Negotiation Orientation, Task Focus and Interpersonal Focus. There are 9 sub-scales within the 4 main scales. Exploring the dynamic interplay between these sub-scales is a valuable way to help teams understand what is hindering them and what they need to do to improve performance and relationships.

Initiative – The Leadership scale has 3 sub-scales: Assertiveness, Group Facilitation and Initiative. Initiative, in the context of the KGI is one’s ability to be the prime mover and spokesperson for the group. To take on a leadership role an individual must be willing to be in the spotlight. The trouble is most people don’t like the glare or the heat that is generated by the light. Putting your hand up means you are accountable and it also means you can be criticised, so it takes energy, commitment and fortitude. It can be scary stuff for some people.

What happens when no-one new steps up to the plate? What is the impact on the group and what happens if this is allowed to become a culture within an organisation? I tell you what happens … not very much. Work output becomes stagnant, innovation is stymied and those who do put their hands up inevitably get burnt out. And the sad thing is development opportunities are missed and people don’t reach their potential. Eventually a climate of apathy prevails. Not a healthy environment to work in.

It comes as no surprise that the Initiative sub-scale of the KGI is, for most people their lowest score. Here is a snapshot of page 12 of the KGI report: the same person 6 months apart. Let’s call her Cathy. She was a middle level manager in an organisation where I was running a Leadership Development Program. The red columns are Leadership. Initiative is the red column third from the left in the more detailed graphs. What’s interesting is the basic shape of Cathy’s graph didn’t change in the 6 months. Initiative is still her lowest but she has significantly increased on every element across the scale. (Sometimes with development and coaching the whole shape of the graph can change – but that’s another story to tell in another blog). Cathy was committed to develop herself as a leader and she was determined to emerge from the program having demonstrated stronger leadership – particularly lifting her Initiative and overcoming her reluctance to step up in public situations. She knew her problems in this area were getting in the way of her leadership. At first she really struggled to even talk in front of the group or put up her hand for “in the spotlight” situations. Through coaching, training, being open to feedback and development and sheer courage Cathy emerged as a star on the program and has continued to thrive. Senior management was very impressed and so were her team members and the rest of her colleagues on the leadership program. She is yet another KGI success story. 

Why are people reluctant to put their hand up and take the initiative? Dr Robert Klein, the developer of the KGI attributes this to two key factors: fear and lethargy. In a conversation Dr Klein told me…”It could be fear. Many people believe there will be bad consequences if they step up and take initiative within the group. One junior executive told me “If I put myself out on a limb by taking initiative, and the limb breaks, I don’t see anyone there to pick me up off the ground. Initiative is risky, and for many, too risky. Sometimes people had negative experiences taking initiative in the past, and those times haunt them in the present, holding them back. For others, they focus on the things that can go wrong: they won’t respond to everyone’s issues and concerns properly, causing resentments; everyone will be staring at them, looking for leadership, creating a harsh, withering glare. By focusing on the downside, they become inhibited and decide that it is better not to step up”.

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
Mark Twain

Or it could be lethargy that prevents them from taking initiative. Many people have simply become accustomed to “letting someone else do it.” Because of this attitude, they tend to sit back in a small group, content to simply follow along. Their own leadership muscle has atrophied. They often don’t recognise leadership opportunities, or feel confident about their ability to take them on, having become acclimated to a passive role that has deskilled them as leaders. The antidote to fear and lethargy is courage.”

In Cathy’s case fear and lack of confidence were getting in the way of reaching her potential as a leader. When I see people stepping up as a result of putting their KGI Individual and Group Development Plans into action I also see a huge difference in the dynamics of the team. It is a positive shift – a release of energy. More people are taking on new things, more gets done – but more importantly people are more engaged and work is more rewarding. This can only happen if the existing leaders and “high initiatives” make way and create space for new people to demonstrate initiative. People need to be encouraged and supported as they take on new responsibilities. They need to be nurtured and coached as they learn even if they initially make mistakes.

Next time someone asks “who will take the lead on this” and a spark of interest lights up within you – then go on! Put your hand up.

What’s your experience with a reluctance for someone to put their hand up and show initiative? How has it impacted you or your team? All comments and questions welcome.

Email me: rhonda@illumaconsulting.com.au or call +61 (0) 410510720) to discuss how Illuma Consulting can help you turn your teams around with the Klein Group Instrument for Effective Leadership and Participation in Teams. We have a range of Team Development and Coaching offers using the KGI – including our Team Tune Up. Coaching can be conducted virtually – we can come to you on-line. You can also download a KGI Brochure from our website

Dr Klein’s new book on the KGI will be published shortly. Rob and I have been friends and colleagues for a number of years and I brought him to Australia all the way from Massachusetts to launch Illuma Consulting in early 2009. We’re having another one of our regular catch up talks about life and the KGI tomorrow. That prompted me revisit this earlier blog and post it here again. (This article has originally appeared as a Ignite blog in 2011).

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