Managing Power Dynamics on Cross-Functional Teams

Invite Quieter Voices, Diverse Thinking, and more Strategic Decisions into your work.

Sometimes my teams have had Vice Presidents working alongside an entry level data analyst. Typically the Vice President wasn’t the one making promotion recommendations for an entry level person – but boy could they squash a promotion if they weren’t in favor of it!  These kinds of teams take leaning hard into visionary leadership where you align people around a common goal.  However, there are additional nuances when you have extreme power dynamics at play – and a strong leader has to recognize when the quieter voices aren’t taking the stage and when you have a stage-hog trotting all over them if you really want to tap into the power of the collective.

So, what are some best practices for adjusting for lopsided power dynamics? 

  • Address power dynamics in the team design upfront.  I always address the elephant in the room in my early meetings.  “Let’s recognize we aren’t all created equal in the administrative hierarchy but, in this room, we are equal in our ability to contribute unique perspectives and make powerful decisions as it relates to this project.  We are each an expert in our own area and therefore, it’s our duty to speak up and represent our unique view, as well as to allow ourselves to listen to the diverse views of others.”  Invite your team to ask for what they need to live that way of thinking.  And I highly encourage, taking it one step further, and designing an active method with your team to identify when they feel they aren’t being heard or see someone hogging the microphone.  For example, can you design a word or a visual cue that halts the conversation for a minute to give everyone time to reflect before moving forward?
  • Spend the upfront time getting to know each other.  “I know, I know…. Most people hate this.  However, getting to see your team members as people vs. another cog in the wheel is critical to developing respect and can create insights that serve you and your team members.  In addition to encouraging trust on the team generally, it can give people a chance to shine in front of your senior team members without the pressure of a business decision to start.  Ask your each of your team members to present a bit about themselves.  You can do this in a formal presentation mode or create more informal chats to help the dynamic.  In addition to giving them a chance to present a couple of career highlights and a bit about themselves personally, I like to be intentional in design and give them some structure that is in service of the team with questions like:  What motivates me?  What de-motivates me?  What are some skills or interests of mine that might surprise you?  In addition to creating trust on the team generally, it can give people a chance to shine in front of your senior team members without the pressure of a business decision to start.
  • Intentional spotlights on the softer voices.  Even on the best of teams, when you have power dynamics at play, it’s impossible for someone to “forget” that they may be offering an opinion that opposes the Vice President of the company that they are desperately looking to advance in.  Consider designing intentional agendas that put the quieter voices front and center.
  • Develop routine structural exercises that invite discussion and curiosity. If you establish that questioning and brainstorming are part of your process upfront, it normalizes it.   For example, you can tap into the improvisation comedy trick of “Yes And…” where you have the team just keep adding on new ideas going from the mundane (i.e. reduce price) to the seemingly crazy (i.e. give away your product for free delivered by a unicorn) for a period of time  every time a new strategic topic comes up before you narrow down to where you want to focus for a strategic decision.   Or, ask subject matter experts to present their primary recommendation for their area along with at least 2 alternative ways to address the matter at hand so that the team can look at how it would work in the overall plan.  Then make it part of the routine structure to have the team explore each path for pros, cons, and new thinking.  If you make this a regular segment and way of thinking, it makes questioning each other routine and encourages speaking up despite the power dynamics.  Not only will this invite broader discussion but often times you will find, it enhances the strategy and decisions you make.
  • When in doubt, ask. I’m a big fan of going right to the individual team members that are either being disruptors or too quiet.  A one-on-one discussion can go a long way to understand what’s guiding the behavior, alert the other person to the impact on others or the team, and give you a chance to consider some creative designs to how you work that can help support the individual and the team in overcoming it.  I have often found that senior members of the team forget that their title can be intimidating and with a  gentle nudge will pull back in service of the team and mentoring others.  And, a quiet team member often simply needs to understand more clearly the value they bring and that you will “have their back” when they speak up.
  • Start and end your meeting with an invitiation to speak up.  “I love an open-ended question like “what’s a question we haven’t asked on this topic?” or “what is something that should be on our radar that is not yet?” or “what topics are weighing on you about this project?”  I find jotting down the ideas visibly upfront even if you aren’t ready to fully discuss them yet helps raise visibility.  Not only is it a quick trick to build an area of focus for future team interactions but it gets people thinking about cross-functional areas beyond themselves as they go into important strategic discussions.
  • Allow for multiple methods of input and output.  It’s important to recognize regardless of power, different people will gravitate toward different methods of both absorbing and reacting to information.  Where possible, try to accommodate this by providing different mediums to intake information and provide feedback.  With today’s technology you can get creative and use interactive platforms from internal chat to social media.  When a decision does not need to be instantaneous, you can give your teams a chance to brainstorm, chat, and ask questions before bringing people together for a final decision or cross-functional discussion.  While this may sound like it would take longer, it often expedites decisions and broadens the information available to make more strategic decisions.

While these tips only scratch the surface of possibilities, they can be a great way to nudge you and your team into more dynamic discussion and action. 

As always, if you are stepping into cross-functional, global, or multi-level leadership and need some extra help developing you and your team, you know where to reach me.  I work with leaders, teams, and organizations that wants help developing people-centered ways of working that get real world results.  Do not hesitate to contact Livthentic for an exploratory discussion or schedule directly on calendly.  I see your spark and want to help you grow it into a flame. You can also join our mailing list to stay in touch or follow us on Linkedin, Facebook, or Instagram.

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