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Ideas for Leaders #809

Leading Conversations: Productive and Unproductive Voice

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Key Concept

Conversations are the engines of organizational success. However, to encourage productive conversations, leaders must distinguish between productive and unproductive voice and productive and unproductive silence. 

Idea Summary

Few people in their careers have avoided the scourge of time-consuming, unproductive meetings. For Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School and Tijs Besieux of the consultancy Leadership Footprint, unproductive meetings are a symptom of a broader problem: unproductive conversations. 

In many ways, the success of organizations hinge on the quality of the conversations within them. Productive conversations, for instance, can positively impact change management, innovation and even employee motivation and retention. Unproductive conversations, on the other hand, can undermine change, hinder innovation and alienate and demotivate employees. 

One central factor in whether conversations are productive or unproductive is psychological safety—that is, the feeling by individuals that they can speak up without fear of rejection, retribution or recriminations.

For example, leaders in an organization may be dismayed that managers and junior executives don’t speak up in meetings, not recognizing the many ways they have sabotaged the conversation. In the past, those leaders have disparaged individuals for offering “silly” or “stupid” ideas. At other times, the leaders enthusiastically endorse ideas from their peers or superiors, almost daring less senior managers and employees to disagree. 

In such a climate, many in the organization will think twice before speaking up in the future. Instead of contributing to the conversation, they withhold their thoughts and ideas, retreating to the safety of silence. The organization pays a price for such silence as new ideas and perspectives are squashed, and the individuals who don’t feel they have a “voice” in the conversation become frustrated and demotivated. 

Leaders play a vital role in the quality of the conversations in their organizations because they influence whether or not psychological safety is established. Managing psychological safety, however, is more complex that simply ensuring everyone always feel free to speak up.

One reason is that speaking up—or “voice”—is not always productive. Some individuals may speak up only to offer irrelevant, distracting comments, for example. Others may make dismissive and even insulting comments. 

Leaders must also take into consideration the often-overlooked benefit of silence. Individuals can be silent not because they fear speaking up, but because they are actively listening and considering what others are saying. In this case, silence is entirely productive, as actively listening to others is a key element of successful conversations. 

Summarize and synthesizing the insights above, drawn from their research and consulting experiences as well as the research of others, Edmondson and Besieux identify four archetypes of participation modes in a conversation:

  • Contributing, which is the outcome of productive voice—voice that allows individuals to offer their insights, thoughts and ideas.
  • Disrupting, which is the outcome of unproductive voice—voice that undermines the contributions of others and interrupts the flow of the conversation with negative distractions.
  • Processing, which is the outcome of productive silence—silence motivated by the desire to listen and learn.
  • Withholding, which is the outcome of unproductive silence—silence caused by fear and other negative factors.

To encourage and manage effective conversations, leaders must begin by distinguishing between these positive and negative modes of participation.

Business Application

The steps below will help you as a leader encourage contributing and processing and reduce disrupting and withholding.

To diminish withholding:

  • Acknowledge your fallibility. You don’t know everything.
  • Encourage participation from all. Explicitly declare that the contribution of each person is needed.
  • Model curiosity. Demonstrate the value of open-ended questions and speaking up.
  • Invite others to respond. When an individual speaks, ask others to offer their responses.

To diminish disrupting:

  • Present the goals and timeframe of the conversation. This step will keep the discussion focused on relevant topics.
  • Insist on adherence to company values. Such values would range from respectful interaction with no personal attacks to preparation before participation.
  • Help people get better. Sometimes individuals don’t realize how they are coming across. Help them become more aware.

To promote contributing:

  • Model learning-oriented conversations. Carefully explain your thinking and explore the thinking of others.
  • Model the challenge of assumptions. Challenge your own assumptions out loud, so that others will follow suit.
  • Model effective participation. Ask questions and applaud answers.

To encourage processing:

  • Set explicit norms for processing. Hold meetings specifically to agree on how to process and when processing is most important (e.g., in client meetings or brainstorming sessions.)
  • Emphasize the value of processing in assessing performance. Note that for the organization, processing is a competence that impacts recruitment, performance management, rewards and learning and development.
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Idea conceived

  • May 2021

Idea posted

  • January 2022

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