Recently I attended an HDI leadership summit and was asked to give a presentation on participation. Because this was a leadership conference targeted at local chapter officers, I wanted to make it relevant to issues we are all facing in our chapters. After discussing this a bit more with an HDI friend, we decided to co-present on active versus passive participation. Actually, we decided, instead of a presentation, to have a very interactive group discussion where participation was highly encouraged.
What I heard prior to this session was a frustration by some chapter officers that not everyone on their board participated in the group. Since everyone on an HDI board is a volunteer, I found it odd that some chose to not participate. There had to be more to it than they were just there to take up space. Even though our session had a targeted audience, this presentation really can be used for any organization where a group needs to work together. I want to share with you some of the information we discovered and thoughts and ideas we collected from the group during our “presentation.”
What Is Participation?
Many of my articles focus on leadership because we need great leadership to make any organization not only float but be successful. But great leaders also need to understand the importance of participation.
The rowing team in this picture has a leader, but without the entire team participating on and off the water, they would not be successful. Participation simply means you are taking part in something. But there is nothing simple to participation if the group you are taking part of asks you to help.
When you are asked to help plan something (like an event), help make decisions (future direction), or help organize (like a meeting or project), it is important that you actually help and not just show up. In our session, we discussed some of the important components of participation.
The most important role of participation is to be a good listener. There is a saying that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak. This could not be truer in group participation. You want to listen more than you talk. Listening is a key role when you are participating in a group whether it be an HDI board meeting or chapter meeting or in your workplace. Think about being part of a project team or problem resolution team. You probably cannot build a plan or come up with the ultimate resolution without listening to people first. You need everyone in the group to share their ideas, thoughts, and suggestions.
We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.
This sounds obvious but how many times have you participated in a group where there was one person calling all the shots and making all of the decisions? Being a good participant means collaborating with everyone and goes hand in hand with being a good listener. Collaboration is your chance to ask the group good questions. The intent of these questions should be to open up new possibilities and new ways of thinking for the entire group.
Types of Participation
In our session, we discussed two types of participants, active and passive. While they are not mutually exclusive, the group agreed most people tend to gravitate more towards one or the other. When you are working in a group it is good to have a mixture of both and I will share why that is below. Included are some characteristics of active and passive participants as well as some dos and don’ts for each.
Being an active participant means that you offer your opinions, suggestions, and examples to help stimulate conversation. You openly listen to others and work with them to maintain the flow of discussion. Where active participation differs from leadership, however, is that you participate, not lead.
One piece of advice (that I struggle with myself) to be successful is to not talk too long in a group conversation. If asked a question or when making a suggestion, try to keep it simple and short when possible. Often times I encounter one or two people in a group who when asked to participate are very long winded. This can derail productivity, not give others a chance to participate, and many times others forget what they were going to say.
As an active participant it is also important to be supportive of others in the group. Be constructive when providing feedback and suggestions. One characteristic our group found in active participants was many are extroverted and used to leading. The challenge here is to allow others to participate and provide ideas. You might have a great idea, but the group can probably make it a lot better through discussion and collaboration. Don’t be married to an idea and be upset when your idea is either not used or morphed into something the group feels is better.
As an active participant, you should help encourage those more passive participants. Help them present their ideas by mentoring them, meeting with them outside of your group, or asking them direct questions in the group setting.
Many passive participants may choose to sit back and let others be more active. Passive participants often do not offer much support during group work. Why is that? Our session group suggested that most passive participants tend to be more introverted and often wait to be asked to participate, discuss their ideas, or provide feedback.
Passive participants have just as many good ideas as their counterparts and need to share this valuable information with their group. Don’t assume your ideas are dumb or unworthy to suggest just because someone else spoke up first. Most passive participants are analyzers and observers and have great ideas but may not feel comfortable being the first person to speak.
In our session, we asked why people thought passive participants were so passive in a group setting. One suggestion was they cannot talk about a particular subject unless they are prepared. Passive participants often feel they need to be prepared in advance so they can speak with knowledge and credibility on the subject. Our session group recommended that the person leading the organization should provide an agenda in advance to everyone attending. This allows those observers and analyzers time to prepare what they want to discuss and share.
For those more passive participants, try writing down your questions, thoughts, and ideas ahead of time. If there is no agenda ahead of time, ask for one. If there is not already an agenda, volunteer to help write it. What better way of knowing what is going to be discussed than helping plan the meeting?
It’s About Balance
Just like anything else in life, too much or too little of something can be bad. Having a well-balanced group of active and passive participants will result in a better team. As the leader of a group, make sure to set ground rules when moderating a meeting. You might need to pass the baton so everyone gets a chance to speak. Set a limit on time to speak if you have to and ask for volunteers to go first. This will help the passive participants participate more and teach the bulldozers to not dominate the conversation.
In closing, I want to leave you with some suggestions our session group came up with to help people be better participants.
- Keep notes in a shared space so everyone can see them before and after a meeting.
- Let people select tasks to work on during the meeting. If they are interested in them, the chances are better for them being more active and excited. But don’t let the group go until all tasks are assigned.
- Let people pair up and work together. This helps them keep each other accountable and learn to be more collaborative.
- Highlight action items that need done and who will be responsible for following up with the group. This goes in that shared space everyone can see.
- Remember new people to your group have fresh ideas but they might start off as passive participants because they are new to the group. Encourage and include them.
- Reach out prior to a meeting and ask others if they need help preparing.
- Make sure everyone knows their role and responsibilities in the group. Never assume people know what is expected of them, especially in a volunteer organization.
Join Tom for more leadership topics in his session, Won’t You Be My Leader?, at SupportWorld Live: A Digital Experience!
Thomas Wilk is an IT manager at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has become a performance improvement leader, helping employees find their way along their career path. As a mentor to managers, he helps them develop leadership skills so they can better engage with their staff. Tom has a bachelor’s degree in Information Science and is currently working towards a master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University in the Public Management program. To see more from Tom, visit
his YouTube channel , and follow him on Twitter @spiller150.