A few years ago I worked at a mega corporation. I had just finished up a brutal week of all-day meetings with 20 people. My boss and I sat down to catch up. Eventually, she warned:
“Dan, you need to speak up more. You need to participate and contribute during these meetings.”
I was livid.
She felt that others had “contributed” far more than me.
It didn’t matter that people were talking just for the sake of it — repeating things that were already said and adding no value. It didn’t matter that very little was accomplished from all that talking. It didn’t matter that the week was a huge waste of time. It only mattered that people were speaking loudly and frequently.
All of my quiet contributions — selectively speaking, listening, thinking, writing, leading small group discussions — were being completely ignored.
Suffice to say, I didn’t last very long at that company.
But the sad part is that given the right environment, I could have. I had plenty of energy, ideas, and good work in me. But because I wasn’t always a loud voice, all of it was being overlooked.
If you’re a leader in a company, it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open for all types of contributions. The quiet members of your team have a wealth of insights everyone can benefit from.
While it’s easy to hear the loud voices, they might be drowning out the quiet ones. To tap into the potential of those quiet voices, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Encourage writing as the preferred medium to share ideas. Writing has a wonderful way of leveling the playing field. No single voice can physically drown out or interrupt another. Not to mention it’s far more efficient than huge meetings.
- Don’t correlate being quiet in meetings with a lack of participation. It’s likely that people are thinking about conversation at hand before responding. This is a good thing. Instant reactions aren’t what you want anyway.
- Give people time and space to think. Don’t fret if written responses come in slower than you’re used to. Reviewing ideas, thinking, and building thorough contributions takes time and focus. These responses will be far better in quality than the speedy ones.
- Judge contributions by quality, not quantity. Not everyone needs to chime in on everything — there’s already too much noise and commentary. Look for depth and breadth of contributions, not volume.
- Don’t assume you’re privy to every bit of collaboration that’s happening. People share and discuss all over the place — in small groups, individually, in public, in private. Just because you don’t see collaboration, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
- Ask for opinions individually. Sometimes the quiet voices just need a tiny bit of encouragement. Find the medium they prefer (IM, Hangout, face to face) and talk to them individually about a particular topic they’re interested in. You might strike gold and it will help them find their voice in the long run.
- Avoid large group-think sessions. They’re insanely ineffective. Short bursts of collaboration in small groups is great. Huge ideas spread across hours and hours? Not so much.
I really believe in quiet voices. They’ve taught me the most and positively influenced my career — far more than the big talkers.
I hope you’ll give them a chance.