Equal share of voice leads to better decisions

Written by Tom Greenwood - September 20, 2021

Earlier this year there was a lot of media attention on the plight of the Ever Given, the container ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal. I’m embarrassed to admit that some lights that Vineeta and I had ordered for our living room were on board on the Ever Given at the time, bringing home the reality of globalisation and ecommerce. The retailer emailed us this photo with a note saying “Your package is delayed and is currently here…”. 

The Ever Given ship stuck in the Suez canal

Thankfully, the Ever Given was rescued without anyone getting hurt, but container ships are extremely dangerous places to work and the organisational culture on board each ship can have a huge impact on their safety. 

It is through the story of another container ship, the El Faro, that I learned about a concept called Share of Voice, and the powerful impact that it can have on teams to make good decisions and operate effectively. Furthermore, it can help create more inclusive cultures within organisations. That’s what this article is all about.

The story of the El Faro

The El Faro was a container ship roughly the size of two football fields. In September 2015, the El Faro was sailing south from Florida carrying cargo to Puerto Rico when Hurricane Joaquin began to brew in the Atlantic Ocean. 

The El Faro crew were aware of the hurricane and needed to decide how to respond. If they stayed on their original course, their path would eventually take them straight through the centre of the hurricane. But for now the storm was hundreds of miles away and they had plenty of time to choose an alternative route or safe haven. They just needed to assess the situation carefully and change course accordingly. Nothing to worry about.

This is where it gets strange. The El Faro didn’t change course, despite the fact that the crew knew that they should and wanted to. As the clock ticked on they became acutely aware that staying on the original course would put all of their lives at risk but they sailed onwards regardless, straight towards the eye of the storm. On the morning of 1st October, the El Faro was lost at sea, taking all lives with it.

Why did this happen, when it was so easily avoidable and when the stakes were so high? No doubt there were several reasons, but apparently unequal share of voice was a key factor in the sinking of the ship.

Team dynamics on the El Faro

Ships tend to have a very hierarchical culture with clear ranks within the crew, and a high degree of deference to the captain. This may work well when everything is running smoothly, but less so when things start to go wrong.

The captain knew the dangers of not changing course, but he also knew that changing course would make them late. The problem is that container ships don’t get money for sailing across oceans; they get money for delivering goods. The faster they sail, the more goods they deliver in a year, the more profitable the ship.  Time is money. The captain of a container ship is accountable for ensuring that his ship delivers on time and maximises profits.

On this particular voyage, the captain knew that arriving on time was more important than ever. The ship owners were planning to decommission the El Faro and one other ship, replacing them with a single, larger ship. In this hierarchical culture where there is only one captain on a ship, it meant that one captain would be out of a job. This put both captains under pressure to prove that they could deliver the best commercial results. So when the hurricane entered the picture, it threatened not only the El Faro captain’s physical safety, but also his livelihood. The captain had a conflict of interest that put him in a seemingly lose-lose position, where changing course could guarantee that he lost his job, while sailing onwards might just pan out OK.

On the other hand, the crew did not face such an inner conflict and had little to lose from changing course. For them, the real and present danger was the hurricane that they were sailing towards. They had a clear motive to ensure that the ship didn’t go anywhere near that hurricane and so it would be reasonable to expect that if the captain ordered them t sail onwards, they would dissent and assert the need to change course. 

As the captain told them to stay on course, he told them that they should speak up if they have concerns. And yet they didn’t. It turns out that you can’t force people to speak up, even when their lives depend on it.

What stops people from speaking up?

It seems that there are two main things that make people feel comfortable to speak up in a group situation, particularly within a hierarchy. Apparently, fear of death is not necessarily one of them!

The two things are:

  1. The vulnerability of others – When other people admit that they are unsure, afraid or have made mistakes, especially when these are the voices of people in positions of authority or leadership, it makes people feel more comfortable that they can also admit that they’re unsure, afraid or have made mistakes. It also makes them feel that others are open to questioning each other’s judgements, not just their own. With that comes the confidence that it is safe to speak.
  2. Share of voice – Share of voice is the proportion of time that each person in a conversation gets to speak. It turns out that the amount of time for which people speak is roughly proportional to their influence on decisions. Very often, senior members of a team can dominate conversations and do most of the talking, diluting the influence of others in the group who may have valuable insights, knowledge and opinions to share. Even if others do speak, their influence on outcomes is limited.

On the El Faro, the ship’s black box recorded transcripts revealing that the dynamics on board lacked both of these things. The captain put on a brave face to hide his fears and vulnerabilities, and also dominated conversations in terms of share of voice. I’ll no doubt write about vulnerability in leadership another day, but it’s the share of voice that I want to focus on here.

The captain did most of the talking in conversations with his crew. He was heard sometimes telling people to speak up if they had anything to say, but he didn’t give them the space to do so. He also asked questions in a tone of voice that implied that they were rhetorical. 

In terms of share of voice, the ship’s transcripts reveal that the number of words spoken by each person are directly proportional to their position aboard the ship. If you just counted the words, you could apparently predict each person’s rank with 100% accuracy. The share of voice accurately mirrored the power dynamics of the hierarchy on board the El Faro, meaning that if the captain wanted to try his luck with the hurricane, the crew were going to stay quiet and do what they were told.

The benefits of improving share of voice 

At this point, I hope it’s clear that unequal share of voice can lead to disastrous consequences. It therefore follows that a more equal share of voice could lead to positive outcomes. Thomas Malone, a professor at MIT, found that more equal share of voice in teams leads to two key benefits:

  1. More effective decision-making
  2. More successful team outcomes

Surely, those are two things that every team wants! 

And here’s the crux – the more you talk, the less you listen.

There is sometimes a perception that people who talk more have more or better ideas, or conversely that quiet people have nothing to offer. 

However, it is often the case that people who are quiet, not only have equally valuable ideas but sometimes more valuable ideas because their silence can be a symptom of the fact that they disagree with the status quo and are nervous to stick their head above the parapet. These alternative views are the ones that help to broaden our perspectives, help us see the world from different angles and initiate discussions that lead us to better outcomes. In some cases these better outcomes might simply be higher quality work or more enjoyable experiences, and in cases like the El Faro, they could literally save lives. 

Likewise, it isn’t always the case that those who talk the most even think that they have the best answers. It can simply be driven by someone’s fear of appearing like they don’t have the answers, or by a person’s discomfort with awkward silence. They might just be filling the silence. 

If we are not careful, we can end up with people who don’t have much to say, saying the most, and those who hold valuable perspectives sitting quietly on the sidelines. It’s no wonder that improving share of voice can lead to better decisions and outcomes.

So how do we improve share of voice? 

I stated earlier that telling people to speak up has little impact on actually getting people to talk more. So what can we do?

It seems that the most effective solution is not for the quiet to talk more, but for the talkative to talk less. When those who tend to dominate conversations make a conscious effort to create space and pause within conversations for others to speak, only then will quieter members feel comfortable to fill that space. You can invite people into the conversation in the role of a facilitator, but you must mean it and you must then leave the space for people to respond to your invitation at their own pace. This means getting comfortable with awkward silence and being patient.

Wherever you tend to find yourself in group conversations, there are things that you can do to improve share of voice. 

Tips for the talkative

If you are one of the more dominant or talkative members of a team, be mindful of your share of the time that you’re taking up in conversations. If it’s a half an hour call and there are five people on the call, then on average, there are six minutes for each person to speak. Try to think about how much you’re talking and whether you’re going over this allowance, as well as being patient to relax into the awkward silence and wait for someone else to speak. When you do find yourself talking a lot, reflect on your motives and take some time to think about what it is that’s driving you to do so.

Tips for those in the middle

If you’re one of those people who’s somewhere in the middle, then you’re in a perfect place to help facilitate conversations and improve share of voice for others. You can look for cues amongst team members that suggest that perhaps they want to join a conversation, but are struggling to. Look at body language and facial expressions that suggest that someone has something to share that they are not vocalising, and listen out for those people who start talking but are cut off by other, more confident people in the group.  Even if you are not in a leadership position within the organisation, you can personally take leadership as a facilitator to actively invite people into the conversation and help hold the space for them to say what it is they want to say.

Tips for the quiet

If you’re one of the quieter people in group conversations, then you have the least responsibility for improving share of voice. But what you can do is hold it in your mind that you do have a right to equal share of voice within the conversation and that you don’t need to justify it.

Let the silence in

I think it’s fair to say that our team at Wholegrain have a reasonably well balanced share of voice on the whole, but I am nevertheless aware that there are voices that we would all benefit from hearing more of. I personally tend to be one of the quieter people in group situations, but in my role as Managing Director I can feel a need to step forward, talk and fill the silence, even if I don’t necessarily have much to offer. This is especially true in online calls where I sometimes feel long silences are painfully awkward.

I gave a talk to our team on this topic several months ago and since then I have been trying to observe my own quantity of air time in group discussions, as well as look out for those who are less vocal and actively invite them into the conversation. Particularly in online calls I have noticed that when we hold back and let the awkward silence sink in, it often prompts another member of the team who was holding back to express their thoughts. I have seen this happening in many conversations and although it is impossible to measure, it feels like the impact has so far been positive and we have been having more constructive, more fulfilling, more inclusive and more well rounded conversations.