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  • Writer's pictureBeatka Wójciak

Megaphone based leadership: Communication tips for leaders and everyone else

Have you ever been in a situation where the most outgoing, most confident person got the most air time on a topic you’ve been discussing? Maybe it was that loud friend in your friend group that ended up single-handedly deciding where you’ll all go on your yearly getaway. Or maybe it was a teammate who was really pushing for their approach to the new project, and wasn’t really interested in alternatives you proposed.

Man wearing a bright orange jumper shouting through a megaphone on an orange background

In such moments it’s easy to just give in to the outspoken person and follow their lead. We all do it, partially because we don’t want to keep fighting with them, partially because they don’t listen to our points of view anyway, and I’m sure it’s partially because we think that they’re actually right and they know what they’re talking about.

The paradox of confidence

People who appear confident are often perceived as knowledgeable. To some extent this is true: knowing that you’re an expert in an area gives you (or at least it should!) a confidence boost coming from the fact that you know what you’re talking about.

However, more often than not, people who are real experts are rarely the most confident person in the room. This is largely a consequence of the Dunning-Krueger effect where the more you know the more you don’t know - and the awareness of how little you actually understand is a very humbling feeling.

This leads to an interesting paradox, where the experts are not taken seriously because they don’t come across as a know-it-all that has the answer to everything. This might get even more difficult if the expert happens to be an introvert (Quiet by Susan Cain talks about it at length).

Meanwhile, people who perceive themselves as competent without realising the real extent of their expertise (or limitations thereof) step in and take over leadership of projects. Ironically, when this happens, less outgoing people tend to just follow their lead, as it would require more energy to step in and change course. This gives the loud one a silent confirmation that everyone agrees with them.

I’m sure by now you can already see that there’s a problem with this approach: we just default to following whoever takes up more airtime, without really thinking whether this is the right choice. Sometimes it will be, but in most cases cooperation (or at least a healthy discussion) is better than a single person taking a lead based on their volume alone.

The funny fact of life is that depending on the circumstances, we can find ourselves on either side of this behaviour: sometimes we’ll be the loud ones, other times we’ll just follow others.

That’s why it’s important to be aware of when this is happening and here are some tips on how to be mindful of these situations:

How to tell you’re the loud one

First off, be honest with yourself and how much you actually know about the topic. If you think you know it all - that’s a good signal that you don’t. When you’re discussing things in a group and everyone seems to agree with you without many questions - that’s your cue.

It might be that you don’t actually let others contribute to the discussion by talking over them or interrupting. You might be excited about the project, but by letting people voice their opinions you put yourself in a better position to deliver a great solution.

It might also be that people feel intimidated or just simply shy around you. In this situation it’s on you to encourage them to speak up. They might feel like you don’t actually want to hear what they have to say, and - since we already established that this is not a good approach - make sure people feel comfortable around you, listen carefully and ask follow up questions. Then adjust your approach to incorporate their opinions.

Being mindful of these kinds of interactions is particularly important when engaging with people from multiple cultures, especially very different from our own. For instance, Americans are famously known for being chatty and open, which can be overwhelming for someone from a more timid country, such as Poland.

When you’re not the loud one

First and foremost, don’t let others intimidate you. I know it can be difficult but remember that people’s expertise is often inversely proportional to their level of confidence - that’s a good rule to keep in mind when you feel like the dumbest person in the room.

When someone doesn’t let you speak up in meetings, it doesn’t mean you’re saying something wrong. It might be that they’re not aware of what they’re doing (send them this article to help them!), or maybe deep down they’re really self conscious and that’s how they compensate for it.

Whatever the reason might be, keep in mind that their behaviour towards you is not a reflection of your worth or expertise. It might be a good idea to bring it up with them in private and ask them to be more mindful of that behaviour - most people will be grateful for your feedback, since they probably never wanted to come across as obnoxious.

Communication tips for leaders

A good leader is aware of the mechanics of people’s confidence and can recognise when it’s happening. They don’t automatically follow the most outgoing and proactive people just because they can hear them best.

Unfortunately, I witnessed several times how people in charge weren’t able to recognise the correct person to pay attention to. Every time that happened, the project suffered afterwards, either by becoming unnecessarily complex or getting delayed.

It’s all about practice and learning how to pick up the difference between what people say they do and what they actually do. I hope you can use these communication tips for leaders and apply them in your everyday life, if you don't aspire to be one.

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