We tend to prioritise assertiveness and forthrightness at work. In other words, extroversion. But often that’s not what’s needed. A considered approach and quiet work are also invaluable in the workplace.
There’s an important distinction here, though. While an effective work culture allows for quiet moments and quiet people, that is not the same as a culture of silence. Smart leaders make sure everyone can speak up when they need to, but also stay quiet when they want to.
So why is it important to make space for quiet in the workplace? And how can you balance that with getting the best ideas out of everyone, not just the extroverts?
The loudest ideas aren’t always the best
The bestselling book Quiet, by Susan Cain, gives great insight into “the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking”.
She points out that we tend to think of extroversion as the ideal in business. But in reality, many of the most successful CEOs are introverts, who understand a fundamental truth: the ideas shouted the loudest aren’t always the best.
As Cain puts it, “if we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day. This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones get squashed.”
Why psychological safety matters
The important thing, then, is to make sure your workplace enables everyone – loud or quiet – to share ideas and raise issues, knowing they will be listened to. This requires a strong foundation of psychological safety.
If people in your workplace are afraid that sharing a ‘bad’ idea or bringing up a complaint will be punished, they’ll quickly learn not to speak up. Obviously, this is damaging for your business, and your first step to addressing it must be showing people that their voices matter.
But once people know they can speak up, you need to make it clear that they don’t always have to! Being truly psychologically safe means bringing your authentic self to the workplace, not putting on an extroverted mask. Only by allowing people to be themselves can you get the benefit of all their different perspectives.
The role of neurodiversity
As Matthew Syed observes in Rebel Ideas, it’s only by having a diversity of perspectives that we can make smart collective decisions. The word “diversity” may first call to mind gender, race, or religion, for instance – but it also refers to people who think differently.
Some people are quiet simply because that’s their personality. But for others, it’s linked to not being neurotypical. Finding an environment overwhelming could make someone with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) find verbalisation difficult. Becoming hyper-focused on a task might cause a person with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) to disengage from communication. And asking someone with Social Anxiety Disorder to speak in front of a group without preparation time may just make them freeze up.
Allowing neurodivergent employees access to quiet spaces helps increase their psychological safety. Having the physical space to be quiet can give them the mental space needed to communicate more freely, which may be impossible when they’re distracted or overloaded.
The role of cultural background
Different modes of communication and cultural mores can be very deeply embedded. And in many cultures, indirectness, politeness and a focus on the group over the individual are central.
Cain gives the example of a student at Harvard Business School, who struggles with the school’s all-consuming emphasis on extroversion. On working a summer job in China, “he was struck by how different the social norms were, and how much more comfortable he felt. In China there was more emphasis on listening, on asking questions rather than holding forth, on putting others’ needs first.”
As a leader in a diverse workplace, you must make sure that you allow for cultural differences. If your reporting systems rely on employees loudly airing their grievances in front of everyone, you’ll leave many people feeling unable to speak up.
Creating systems which work
So, people may be quiet for many reasons. But once you’ve made sure your workplace has a culture of psychological safety, how do you get the best out of your quieter employees? How do you ensure they feel comfortable, and empowered to ask questions and share ideas?
- Have clear D&I policies, so your workplace is set up to respond to people’s diverse needs and get the best out of them. Make sure everyone knows these, too, not just HR.
- Have workspace assessments for new starters, and provide them with the equipment they need to make it work for them. Noise-cancelling headphones, for instance, or a desk in a quieter spot.
- Set up designated quiet workspaces which people can retreat to when needed, and normalise their use.
- Allow for remote work where possible, so employees who find it draining to be constantly around people can rechange and work more efficiently.
- Chair meetings properly. This means having someone with facilitation training directing the flow of the conversation, and ensuring that not only the loudest voices are heard.
- Give people time to think rather than only letting them share ideas off the cuff. So distribute agendas well in advance of meetings, and allow a window of time for people to share further ideas on a topic after the discussion is over.
Allow for varied modes of response when it comes to important discussions. Some people prefer text-based communication, or passing on their ideas one to one, rather than in a group conversation. You’re after good ideas, not good presenting skills.