Handling 'Loudmouths' in the Workplace

There's a tendency among hiring professionals to let their judgments be influenced by confident people -- including judgments that don't necessarily prove to be accurate.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013
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You likely know who they are. They're the ones who are the first to speak at meetings and the ones most likely to have the last word. They're confident, assertive and, sometimes, overbearing. Now there's research to suggest that, despite their confidence and the tendency to dominate interactions, they are not necessarily endowed with the most knowledge in the room, and may not even have the most valuable perspectives to help drive the goals and objectives of that group.

Bryan Bonner is a professor of management and organizational behavior at the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business and the co-author of research that will appear in the November issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes titled "Separating the Confident from the Correct." The study examines the impact of "loudmouths," or to put it more kindly, those who have a tendency to dominate the interactions they engage in.

Most groups, says Bonner, will assume those who speak the loudest, or the most -- those who exude confidence -- are knowledgeable., that is often not the case, he says. And this can prove costly to businesses that may be both relying too heavily on inaccurate insights and missing out on the accurate and well-informed, insights that are not shared.

"It's an expensive problem to not utilize the resources you have," says Bonner. "It's confounding to me that organizations don't make greater effort to really leverage the resources of the group -- the knowledge and expertise."

In his research over the last 20 years, Bonner says that he frequently sees that a lot of the expertise that exists within groups is not being used because "the group isn't listening to the right people." In fact, he says, there is no correlation between confidence and expertise. Yet, we are often lulled into believing that those who talk the most also know the most.

"People don't wear stickers that say how much they know, so we just make our best guesses," says Bonner. Those guesses, he says, "are based on how confident people portray themselves to be. That would be great if people were pretty well-calibrated, but they're not.

"It turns out that the correlation between how good you think you are at the task and how good you really are is quite low."

The overwhelming tendency to be influenced by confident people in making judgments that may not necessarily prove to be accurate is often seen in the hiring process, notes Bonner. It's an interaction where confidence is king. "We have these face-to-face interviews with people and we're impressed by the confidence they show in their abilities, whereas some of these decisions should be more informed by the expertise and the knowledge that people bring."

There are a number of things that HR professionals and managers can do to ensure they are gaining the value of input from all members of their teams. "It turns out that it's just really easy to do," says Bonner.

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"If you can create a situation for the group where they're talking about facts and knowledge, and demonstrating to each other what they know and the value of their contribution, then all these things that are just basically noise -- like status and confidence and extroversion and race and gender -- become much less influential."

Joe Utecht, service delivery manager for specialty teams with Ceridian HCM in the Minneapolis area agrees. This can be done through structure and process, says Utecht. For instance, sending materials out to review and consider before a meeting or discussion will give the more introverted members of the group time to digest and synthesize the information -- something they are often not comfortable doing "on the spot." Or, specifically calling on certain individuals, or using a round-robin approach to generate feedback can help to ensure that everybody has the chance for input.

It can also be helpful to enlist the assistance of someone who tends to dominate a meeting, he says. The meeting leader might go to that individual prior to the meeting and say something like: "Could you help me out in the meeting? I've noticed that 'so and so' never speaks up. I'm wondering if, during the meeting, you might check with them and help me to elicit their feedback."

A more direct approach, says Utecht, would be to talk to the individual and say something like: "You always have a lot of good insights to share, but I don't feel I'm hearing enough from the others. I'm going to ask that you save your comments until everybody else has had an opportunity for input. I'll make sure you have a chance to contribute, but I'll call on you last."

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