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  • Writer's pictureMichael Soderling

Management team: You’re not responsible for what you say.

You are, however, responsible for what you don’t say.

At the end of a two-day management team development workshop, the time had come for summarising learnings. One of the participants mentioned that something I had said was lingering with him: “Whatever you say the team must take responsibility for. But you have to take responsibility for what you don't say”. Let that thought simmer in the back of your mind while I take a seeming detour and make use of a perhaps unexpected analogy – namely the game of billiards.

As you probably know, a game of billiards starts with the break, sending the balls in all directions. In an article summarising 40 years of research into management teams we can read: “The billiard ball-effect occurs when the initial statement [in a discussion] is reacted to differently by each participant, who, in turn, makes comments that take the discussion in different directions, changing the topic and causing new reactions with each remark."

Not only does it become unclear what the group is talking about, but large amounts of information are being lost in what is effectively a barrage of parallel monologues bouncing around the meeting table. Most likely you have experienced the billiard ball-effect, so you will hardly be surprised to learn the article refers to a study in which top management teams named digression as the most common reason for reduced productivity in management meetings. The article refers to another study that that found “that the most frequently mentioned meeting problem among 1,600 managers and technical professionals was getting off-topic with rambling, redundant and digressive talk.”

A management team has to deal with complex issues. In order to be able to define problems and come up with the best solutions, there is a need to foster a climate in which the team can benefit from the knowledge and expertise of every single member. How can this be accomplished? Well, we can consider the concept of being in role. It is defined as aligning your thoughts, feelings and behaviour with the purpose and goals that are relevant to the context. This approach is based on the same theoretical framework and methodology as my previous statement about responsibility which brings us back from the apparent detour:

The group has to take responsibility for what you say: In practice, this means that members display curiosity and encouragement when someone in the team speaks, even when members don’t agree. The usual response when we disagree is to respond with "yes, but...", which is the opposite of curiosity and runs counter to the idea of benefitting from every colleague’s knowledge. The next time you're in a meeting feeling a “yes…but” bubbling up inside you, try saying "please elaborate" instead. Chances are you will get a deeper understanding of the other side of the coin and possibly even realise that the other person is, in fact, contributing to solving the problem at hand. Thus far I have discussed curiosity. When it comes to encouragement, you can display it by saying that you feel someone’s suggestion is interesting or that you appreciate that someone raised a topic – even if you don’t agree with the content of what your colleague is saying.

Given my experience of having advocated this approach, I suspect some readers are starting to become skeptical, thinking “We can’t spend an entire meeting just agreeing!” Let me say that you are perfectly right and here you will get the whole picture including the research background.

You have to take responsibility for what you don't say: When you feel your energy levels begin to fade in a meeting, there's a good chance you're not alone. You are therefore doing the team a real favour if you tell them that you are starting to zone out because, for example, the billiard ball-effect is in full swing or that curiosity and encouragement are nowhere to be seen. Another aspect of taking responsibility is by commanding response. When you speak, make sure you have eye-contact with everyone and when you’re done, explicitly ask for feedback. If the team is still unresponsive, you can very well put into words just how uncomfortable being met with silence feels.

In the moment when the above happens, you might be a little hesitant about my suggestions because you may very well begin mind-reading that your colleagues think you are annoying or demanding. An antidote that decreases the hesitation is completing the team’s norms with, for example “we encourage one another to verbalise when we feel our energy fading or when we feel we are being left hanging.”

You’re not responsible for what you say. You are responsible for what you don’t say. How do you feel about applying it?


If you'd like to deepen your understanding of the concept of being in role, you can do so both in the English language, and in the Swedish.


The clients who reach out to me are managing directors, management teams, and executives who want to realise the potential in their organisations and accomplish extraordinary results. They reach out to me because of my ability to transform individuals, teams, and organisations.

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