Tech Leader Chats: How to support quieter voices to be heard with Valerie Phoenix

Title of talk with photo of speaker

We know that teams work best when everyone is able to contribute – as one example, the Project Aristotle research from Google found that in the highest-performing teams, everyone is contributing on a regular basis. However, there are many reasons why some people on your team might be quieter than others, ranging from the individual (e.g., someone who’s more introverted) to the systemic (e.g., someone from an underestimated group or someone from a different cultural background).

The shift to more hybrid and remote work has only complicated things. On the one hand, some people may find it easier to make their opinions heard in a different context (e.g., when using a virtual whiteboard for brainstorming), whereas others may find it harder (e.g., speaking up in a Zoom meeting). And what happens on a blended team where some people are together in person and some are virtual?

As a manager, it seems harder than ever to support everyone on your team and ensure that everyone is able to contribute. We’ll talk about strategies to:

  • Identify the folks on your team who are quieter
  • Support these folks without making them feel like they’ve been put on-the-spot, which can be difficult for some
  • Help the louder folks on a team learn to make space for quieter voices, without making anyone feel silenced

Throughout, we’ll discuss how to adapt these strategies to remote or hybrid teams. Lastly, we’ll consider broader trends in engineering and discuss the skills managers will need to cultivate in order to support quieter voices in the shifting work landscape of the future.

About the speaker
Valerie Phoenix is a self-taught developer and engineering manager (currently at Alma, previously at Spring Health) focused on creating user-centered digital experiences. She’s passionate about spreading the financial wealth offered by the tech industry. Valerie founded the Tech By Choice nonprofit to teach more human skills to individuals from underestimated backgrounds looking to break into the tech industry.

How to support quieter voices to be heard

See below for:

  • Key takeaways from the talk
  • The recording
  • A transcript of the talk
Key takeaways
3 ways to support quieter voices

Don't just look at introverts!

Focus on building safety

Follow virtual meeting best practices

Recording and slides

You can view the slides from the talk here - and see below for the full recording


James Dong  0:02  
Okay, so our plan for today for the roughly the first half hour, our speaker Valerie, who I'll introduce you to in just a moment, will tell us about how to engage and support quieter folks at work. We'll have about 20 minutes of talking and about 10 minutes of q&a. Then after that, we'll switch to discussions with small groups, those of you who have been with tech leader chats for a while, you know, that we love giving folks action items to bring to work tomorrow. And so that really will be the focus of the small groups. And then we'll come back together, we'll do a quick close, so that you're aware of some of the upcoming awesome talks that we have. So with that, I want to introduce you to Valerie, who is someone that's amazingly cool that I met at a conference based in San Francisco, Valerie just has the energy of someone that wants to help others break into the tech industry. And that is something that I so admire, she comes from, she comes from an untraditional background herself, she was an art degree and an art student. And that's a really cool way to get into tech. And so as an in addition to her role in engineering, and now an engineering manager at ALMA, she actually started a nonprofit called Tech by choice. That's all about getting folks from different backgrounds into tech, and making tech a more inclusive space for everyone. So with that quick introduction, I'll let Valerie tell you more about herself. And then it helped us guide and learn on how we can support quieter voices on our teams.

Valerie Phoenix  1:38  
Hey, everyone really excited to chat with all of you, I'm just gonna go through the steps to go ahead and share my screen. And I see the green bar. So all is working, because I know how to use him. So that's great. But no, I'm really excited to be here and chat with all of you today, I want to talk about how do we make space for the quieter voice and make sure that we don't have this sound requirement when it comes to tech. So as I got this amazing introduction, I don't have to talk that much about myself, which is great, because I'm actually someone who has a very quiet voice. And I don't like to do all those things. But what I do want to share just a little bit about me and why I love talking about this topic. And it's because I've moved into the senior leadership at like James said, as someone who is coming from a non traditional path in. I've been in tech for about 10 years now in the last five years has been in management. And so I'm really excited to be able to share some of the stuff that I learned over the time with all of you as well as get to learn from all of you throughout this discussion. Outside of that I did found tech by choice. And I feel like the last three years of my life has been really focused on building these community, communities and environments that are truly human centred, because I've been working at a mental health startup that truly cares about the mental health of our employees as much as the mental health of the people that we provide tools for. So it's just been a really great way to be able to learn about our mission, my mission of being able to create space for lots of people, especially with the work that you're doing with tech by choice, just to give you a little bit of insight, because I'll be referencing this throughout the talk. Tech by choice is a nonprofit that's focused on making space for marginalised spirits known that they can leverage tech to land jobs, get promotions, and even build some of their own businesses, but just all hell's happening in our community now. And the really cool thing about all of that is that all of you can help make this reality. One that is true for everyone by joining us and giving out some of your support. We're always looking for donations, we're looking for mentors, especially tech leaders who can help guide our community and show them how they can create their own personal career paths to leverage tech, especially leaders who care about making sure five voices are heard, that is what we're looking for. And we also have our advisory board that is now open, we're looking for tech leaders who are willing to support and help more diversity in tech and making sure that it's open to all of us. Right. So jumping into today, today's discussion, I want to get started with grounding ourselves in the definition of what a quiet voice is. Because when I was thinking about it, I thought of how all the different ways that quiet voices show up in the world. And I really wanted to focus us on defining what it is so that we can understand how to support it. And I know a lot of people may think of five voices as that introverted dev that doesn't like to talk. But in reality of five voice can be any of us at any given moment. Because we think about What are some of the themes that create cried voices, we'll quickly understand that fight horses can come from a number of different themes. It can be a cross between cultural norms, new work environments, as experiencing past discrimination in the workplace. It could just honestly be your personality, you could be introverted. And I want to validate that too, because that's cool, we can work with that. It could be fluctuating mental health states, going to the pandemic, I think we're more aware of mental health, and how it shows up for people in the workplace more and more. So I want to emphasise that it could also be invisible illnesses that people don't talk about, you can't see. And that's why some people don't want to talk that much in meetings, especially if your billing been or anything like that. Why show up and be extra enemy if you don't have to. Now, there are the other topics that we discussed a lot, which is the lack of psychological safety, and low team around will also lead to wide voices. I think this list is really great. But I want to point out something that I recently learned by being in community with folks around cultural norms, I recently found out that they're First Nation and indigenous people, some of the cultures say that it's not normal for people to be boastful and to talk about yourself and to share exactly what you you're done your your achievements and things like that. So you can see how in the workplace, where we tend to lean towards more or less nice views, that doesn't allow those people to show up because they're expecting their community to be able to share those things about themselves, and to be able to show up in a community being supportive in that way. So there are different ways that we can set up our leadership in our space, so that even if someone is coming from one of those backgrounds, they still have the support and understanding. So that way, we can better position ourselves to make sure all voices are heard on our team. Now, we understand, like some of the reasons why people have fired voices. And we have to talk about the fact that a lot has changed over the last few years. And we a lot of us have moved to hybrid, or these remote work environments, which can be really great for some people, but also could be really challenging for others. So we have to understand how these shifts have really changed the work dynamic, and start to use that to help us leverage how to identify these challenges and move forward from them. Because if we think about it, the thing about virtual spaces is that our quiet voices can quickly go silence, if we're not mindful if we're not paying attention to what's happening and why. And I think I believe that it is our job as leaders to make sure that there's space for everyone to share their voice, and make sure that it's heard. But I know it can get tricky, especially in the work remote environment, you have to deal with your day to day job keeping up with technical requirements, incidents, all of the themes that are constantly happening. And you still have to make sure that you take care and watch out for your humans. So when I am going through and thinking about my team, and I'm thinking about who's showing up and who's being quiet, I have these lists of questions that I go through that I want to share with all of you. First one is how often do you hear someone someone's opinion? I think if you are working with a group, and you realise I don't hear this person that often, I don't know what they think about this, that is your first sign that they're starting to be quiet, especially if this is someone that you're used to hearing. And then you can also go through. And I like to do this in a personal thing, when I have to announce something to a team, especially something that is like a pivot, we're changing direction, we're no longer doing the thing that everybody was excited to do. Because of some business requirements. You know, the thing that always happens at work, I like to think about how my different humans will react to that announcement. If I get to a space where I don't know how one person will react. Or if my initial thought is completely different than the reality, I will start to understand like, hey, maybe maybe this is the word human things where you can never predict how humans do anything. Or maybe this is happening so often because I'm not hearing this person, this person could be going silent in the workplace. And that's when I started to dig in, like into where are they actually showing up in the workplace? Are they showing up in Slack? Are they more active in prs? Can I see how they're doing their? Are there any documentation? Are they doing one on ones with other people? Are they jumping into zoom sessions? Where are they In the workplace, and if I'm not seeing them in those different places, that calls for a check in, in my one on ones to see what's going on. And typically in my one on ones, I could get people to be more interactive to be talkative. I think that's great. And sometimes I will check that off, as I'm good to go. I talked to this person, I know where they're at. But if I'm not hearing those voices, those opinions, those sounds in the meetings, there's still something wrong. And so I could go through all of these different questions and a whole bunch more. But I think the most important question that I like to ask is, did I talk to my human about this day, I asked them how they like to have employees show up. And so I think it's really easy for us think about all the different ways that we can show up and show support. But we have to remember that we're humans, we can't read minds. I mean, we can sometimes guess what code is going to do. And that's a little bit more predictable to humans. So when it comes to the human problems, I always tell people, it's better that we just go ahead and ask our humans what's going on.

And I think one of the reasons why we want to jump into those conversations, is that we want to make sure that we're creating safe environments. But in order to create a safe environment, we have to understand that they don't just happen, they are something that is built in a team by people who really care. And I'm really excited to be here, because I think we all really care. So it's a great group to talk about all this stuff, right. So but what does maintaining a safe environment look like? Especially when you're thinking about supporting these five voices, it's about making sure that there are clear expectations for communication. Sometimes it takes a little bit more around creating contracts of how people want to show up, that will make it easier for those five voices to say like, Hey, I'm following my team norms, I can do this, I can show up. I know it's my time to talk. It is also about being able to allow people to show up the way that they want to sometimes in my Zoom meetings that I run with my team, there are some people on my team who will talk non stop and chat. But if I ask them a question, they never come off mute, they will respond in the chat. And I've had to learn to just like accept that. That is how this person likes to show up. This is how they like to communicate. And it's easier and less pressure for them to show up that way. So doing little things like that will allow people to find ways to communicate in so that they see fit. We can also do things that, such as allow anonymous feedback, these are all really key and making sure that people have the different ways that they can show up. Again, a good example of creating team norms and creating those contracts, is by going ahead and saying in stand up, we will go through our data daily stand up, over blockers go over what we're doing. But also you can call out and say that there are certain themes that you want to parking lot and talk about with the team. And we can go through that. And then we can add on to our team norms, communication norms, and say like, sometimes we just want to chat, maybe we don't have a parking lot item item that we want to go into. And we can go ahead and say like, Hey, we declare the standup is over, no one's required to stay here. But if you're open to chatting, listening, whether you come off mute or not, we can stay in, we can hang out, because that is the contract that we've created for our team to go and say how we communicate in these spaces. And you can continue to create these different contracts and slack and making sure that you have a private slack in different ways that you communicate there. As well as going as far as like explaining how you want to communicate in PR, so that feel safe for people and they can voice if something goes wrong there. Another way to make space for quiet voices is to make sure that we're rewarding what we value. So a lot of times when we are seeing that people are going to try to err on the borderline of being silent. It's because they don't feel safe. And a lot of times, it's those indirect things that are happening in the workplace that will signal to people. This isn't a space where my voice will be valued. Especially if you have a space where you are saying, Hey, we don't like those brilliant jerks. We don't like the people who will talk about their CS degrees and how this person doesn't have it. And if we say that, but we have people showing up and PR is talking about based off of their degree and what they learned that this is the best way to do it. And that person then gets promoted. And that's what they're known for. That's their track record. We are now seeing as a company that this is what we value. Even though if we look on our company page, we say something completely Different. So the more that we can really focus on making sure that our values are tied to our rubrics when it comes to promotions, and levelling is going to be the more we're able to just have trust built into our system. So that it's easier when someone is voicing like, Hey, I don't think this is right. I don't think this is the environment that I want to communicate in this person is not following an art contract. They know that they will feel heard, because they see what we actually value because the support it. And that was my example for breaking trust, just if you did not catch that. And so the other thing we want to think about, especially being in a more remote first space, is that we want to create more space and zoom. And so I like to say, as kids, we had the idea of inside voices. But as adults in these work environments, you should have zoom voices, meaning the amount of times you come off mute should not be more than anyone else. And that you should be making space, especially if you are a louder voice in the team. It's a team effort, that to get our quiet voices to be seen and heard, they have to have space. So the more that we can lean into that contract of this is how we communicate, we're going to go ahead and have our zoom voices in this meeting. And that is focus on discussions, we're going to be able to make more space for the people who need more time to hit that unmute button or time to type in the chat to make sure that their voices are heard. And that brings me to talking about the tooling that we would use in this zoom space. A lot of times we see all of these different posts about doing doing retros and figma, and big jam. And we can use mural for brainstorming and different things like that, which I think it's great. I think those tools definitely serve its purpose. But we shouldn't be implementing tools just to have tours. Because we're now remote. I think a really good example of how we can go about adding tools that makes the most sense for our team is to really take the time to go through the steps that I went through before to identify our five voices, understand why those five voices are showing up. And then we'll be able to see the different gaps in our communication. I think that is the best way to create these work environment remote environments that support all voices. I think a really good example of tooling and how I've been able to implement that on my team is with design and Dev turned off one of the more trickier themes to do within a team, especially in our remote space, especially at a company that was not remote. Prior to the pandemic, we had to create our own norms very quickly in order to be able to have seamless handoff. So to do that, we had to identify like what was going wrong, I had a friend and Tao who was definitely loving to chat in Slack and didn't really enjoy being in large zoom meetings. So would never voice their opinion about what was wrong, what wasn't working. So it actually took us creating health checks to allow anonymous feedback to understand what our issue was when it came to design and Dev handoff. And we were able to identify that it was unclear what the little changes were versus acute changes, it was unclear of what was a you have to get this perfectly right versus this one, we could talk about it, it's on the fence, or maybe the designs were taking a little bit too long. And we were seeing that by the time that I've got finished with it. They were completely different based off the feedback that design got. So we found that one of the easier ways for everyone on the team to have their voice be heard was to have boom walkthroughs of our design handoffs. So our designer can talk through the different parts of it. And our designer started to document and use Zoom in a different way that was more friendly for DevOps. And it was through these different exercises that we went through as a team, that my quiet dev who is refuses to come off mute most of the time, and as always in the chat is voices heard. And they're able to work really closely with the designer, and they have a really great working relationship now. And the best part is we have good handoff. So it's a big win. So as you see there are themes that are constantly changing in the workplace. And I think that means that for leaders like us, we're going to have to be dynamic, we're going to have to figure out different ways to support these voices that are sometimes overlooked, or just by it or that becomes silent. So as we become and grow as leaders, we have to understand that we're not just creating inclusive remote communication strategies, we're actually focusing on maintaining these environments. So this is something that is constant, that once we build it, we're gonna have to constantly go back and check, iterate, make changes, and make sure that people understand that they always feel heard. So with that, I would like to say thank you, this is really fun to talk about this stuff. And again, if anyone is looking to help support some quiet voices over in a text by choice community, here are some links that you can use to add some support there.

James Dong  20:48  
That was really great. Valerie, thank you so much, that for me, the point that struck out I mean, it was so many good points. But the first couple of slides that you mentioned around, you know, it's not just introversion and talking about cultural norms, psychological safety, and how that's been perhaps broken or affected on team that was really impactful. And that was a key takeaway for me. I'm going to turn it to some question to answer. So folks, if you have any questions, feel free to put them in the chat. I'm going to start with one that actually came in before this event. This one comes from Nathan, and it's how do you empower the quieter voices to step up into leadership roles?

Valerie Phoenix  21:28  
Oh, I think that's a really good question. So I think understanding what our quiet voice is meant to do and what leadership looks like to them is going to be key. So I have one person that I've worked with in the past, and they were definitely you're on mute Valerie. Yeah, that was super weird. Like, every Okay, whatever. Tech is not on my side, I built it. I don't know how to use it, apparently. But I had one dev who was very quiet, and they wanted to move into leadership. And they thought leadership was making technical plans, and then just telling people to execute. So I think the first step is one getting on the same page and finding alignment with what leadership looks like. And then seeing what they really care about, and then building a plan towards that. Now, one of my fighters wants to actually get into management and have more like one on ones and have to speak to stakeholders and different things like that. I would start them off with what do you feel the most comfortable doing? Is it focusing on documentation? Is it creating loom videos walkthroughs, and build them up to be able to feel comfortable in a zoom setting, to talk about those themes, and then slowly phase them into like, Hey, you did it. These are the different things that you need to do to be a leader. And so those are some of the ways that I would go about it.

James Dong  23:00  
Great, thank you. Question from Lauren. So some people. So I've heard that some people want to create say they want to create an environment where their team feels safe enough to share their opinion with their name connected to it. So what are your thoughts on creating that type of environment where people feel safe speaking, honestly, versus when anonymous feedback is needed?

Valerie Phoenix  23:21  
Oh, this one's kind of difficult, because, um, I think you would first have to understand, like, what is the reason that people are not feeling safe. So if this is just a new team, and people are trying to get to know each other, you would go through like the forming norming and storming stages and be able to come up with different activities to get people to that point. And I think if it's a new team, it's really focusing on like, celebrating wins, celebrating mistakes, and just like trying to fool like, I'm gonna say, have forced fun, but fun, Team fun. That is a better way to describe that. And I think that's really great for building a new team. Now, if you have a team that has been going for a while, and at some point, trust has been broken, it's really key to find out why not trust has been broken. Again, a lot of the times that I've seen this happen with a team, it's a values misalignment, where we're saying like, hey, we care really deeply about code quality. But the company is always rewarding the team that builds the fastest and bricks pa prod most often. So usually is trying to find that alignment, trying to find where the trust has been broken, really will focus on fixing that and showing action as quickly as possible to show the team that one you're a leader that can make change and that it's okay for you for them to come to you with the issues and then be able to recreate that space that you've made in your one on one sessions. In a like Team retro that it's like hey, What's going on? What's going wrong? What's going right with the team? Let's come up with different things. So I think retro, in different meetings like that is a really good space for those different issues. Right.

James Dong  25:13  
This next question is from Jeff. And I'm gonna combine it a little bit with Janet's follow on and with another question that I have, which is the very specific tactics around zooms, and just virtual meetings? So what are your thoughts on asking questions in order to encourage quieter people to participate and be heard? And balancing that with potentially making them feel uncomfortable? If, if sometimes people might feel called out by those questions? And then the additional add on I would have is, if you have someone who is a louder voice? How do you engage with them in the context of that meeting? Like a private chat or something? Or do you talk to them after that meeting for a future meeting? And how do you kind of balance those concerns?

Valerie Phoenix  26:00  
Oh, yes. Okay. So I'm going to lose track of some of these questions. So Jay, Lion, I knew here. But I think when it comes to making sure people don't feel called out, one thing that I love doing with my humans is being able to just have a grounding session with them when I first become their manager and say, like, what is your communication style. And I have implemented that to the point that everyone on my team has a shared communication style, ways that they like to work and things like that, that's just in our guru, our Confluence page for our team, so that it's just known like anyone who wants to contact us, if you want someone on the team, this is the best way to do it. So being able to understand how many people like just that one to one versus like they're open to like, more public group discussion is key, because then that will help me understand how I want to lead those conversations, or those zooms where I want to want to call on people. So my team right now is a very quiet team, I have one person who has a very loud voice, and the rest of the team is very quiet. So what I do is I like to send out discussion points or topics beforehand. So if we're doing a retro, say, like on this Friday, tomorrow, I would make our retro board, give them different topics that we're going to talk about, or I would like to cover and send that over to them, giving them time to jot down different themes come up with talking points. So that way, when I say like, Okay, how are we doing with process and QA, they already have some ideas and things that they want to talk about. And then I can lean into more open answers open, open ended questions that they already have some talking points going. So that's how I kind of play with that dynamic of not calling out people but still giving them space to use different functionality and zoom like raise hand and use a chat or different things like that, that gives people the power to show up and communicate in ways that best suits them. And it also gives me a little bit of leeway to make sure that if I do call on someone, I know that they at least have one or two things jotted down, so it's not as abrasive. And I think I kind of covered all the questions.

James Dong  28:30  
The last part to this was if you already are in a situation where you're in a meeting, and someone is, you know, not using their zoom voice or someone is coming off of mute more than anyone else. Is that something that you might address with a DM in the meeting itself? Or would you follow up with them after? Or how would you handle that?

Valerie Phoenix  28:49  
I think it depends on the person, because I think some people are over aware of how they show up with their communication. And they don't mean to over talk. And they're actually very self conscious about that. So that is one of my human senses. This is happening with I will give them space, make sure that they feel heard. And then just say like, Hey, what does the team think about this. So that gives them a time to pause. And they know that they don't need to speak at that moment. And it gives other people the floor. If it is one of my humans that are not self conscious about it. And they have said that they want to get that feedback to make sure that they're improving on this. I would say like, Hey, that's really great. I've heard a lot of opinions from you today. Do you think would you want to like would you want to see this from a different viewpoint? And it's a lot easier to do this but does because when you have front end and back end devs because I can then say like, Have you heard the back end or the front end perspective? Or have you heard the back end perspective? So that way I can switch the dynamic. While I can still give them time to pause and call it out clearly, but make it still focus on like I want to hear these other people. Um, there's definitely been moments where I'm not the greatest at that of like interrupting, that is like my own personal. I'm a quiet voice thing. And so what I also have done in meetings is, I like the fact that a lot of people stay on mute. And then like we can see when someone's unmuting. And we can see that people are trying to speak. And there's like a built in respect there within zoom, pushing people to raise their hand when it gets to be too much as a really good thing where it doesn't require me to call anyone out. And I think sometimes it does require me to say like, for my humans, who may not be that self aware, like, hey, we need to talk about this in a one on one. You spent most of the meeting talking about this topic? What's going on here? How can we create a better communication strategy that you can lean on?

James Dong  30:57  
Great, thank you so much. Those were all such great tips. And I especially appreciate by the way, you're coming from this perspective as a quieter person yourself. So it's like a real world experience. So this was awesome. We're gonna go ahead and transition now to the small group part of the tech leader chat. I'm gonna go ahead and just pause recording and then share my screen again. Give me a second.

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James Dong
James Dong
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