Image copyright © Pete Mosley
I’m an archetypical quiet person. I now understand the reasons for that, but it took a lot of archaeology and bomb disposal to uncover why I was quiet in the first place.
A couple of serious childhood illnesses – one which nearly killed me – resulted in my being a shy, withdrawn child. I was introspective and thoughtful compared to the bold, boisterous kids around me, with a capacity to withstand very long periods of quiet time on my own – something I later came to realise later was something of a superpower.
In my early work as a business mentor in the creative industries, I discovered that a lot of my clients were really brilliant at what they did, but not good at sticking their heads above the parapet.
They seemed to have some kind of visceral fear of promoting themselves in any way, and even a distaste for exposing themselves through marketing. Recognising these tendencies in myself, as well as a growing number of people I came into contact with, I began to address it more seriously in my work, my workshops and my first book, The Art of Shouting Quietly.
To arrive at where I am today, as a mentor, coach and speaker, I’ve had to learn to be more gregarious and overcome a lot of obstacles along the way. But my personal experience is still a powerful underpinning to what I do: when I talk to quiet people I’m talking to them, first and foremost, as a fellow quiet person, not as an academic.
The science of quiet people
We’re all used to hearing about introverts and extroverts. In my experience, these terms are overly simplistic for what is a complex and nuanced area.
Current work in neurodiversity supports this: it’s telling us,
You can’t group this. We are all neurodivergent; we’re all different.
The Myers’ Briggs introvert and extrovert definitions are – to me – just another way to pigeonhole people. I encourage people to ditch the labels and talk to individuals.
When I’m speaking on the subject of quiet people, I use a much broader definition that includes people with a genetic predisposition to being quiet, and those whose quietness has been caused by cultural and nurturing factors. I tend to use the terms ‘people with more social energy’ and ‘people with less social energy’.
Because, ultimately, this all comes down to the amount of energy you have available for any particular type of interaction at any given time. And that can vary for all people, continuously throughout the days, weeks and months of their lives.
Image copyright © Pete Mosley
Avoiding the narrow, polarised definitions of introvert and extrovert allows for a more useful conversation, one that includes the neuro-biological differences in quiet people and more outgoing people, which are profound.
Socially energetic people tend to thrive on the Dopamine reward pathway. Dopamine-reliant people think incredibly quickly, because they want to get it all over and done with and get on to the next reward.
Quiet people rely on the Acetylcholine (ACh) pathway, which slows the thinking right down and, in doing so, allows the thinking to go into many more parts of the brain and visit more of the neural networks that are in operation (and to create more, which allows for deeper thinking).
Put simply, the brains of socially energetic and less socially energetic people work very differently.
Time and again, I find this to be one of the most impactful parts of my work as a coach, mentor and speaker: the moment when leaders and managers understand that their quiet employee is not ‘being awkward’ or somehow wilful in their quietness, but that their brains are wired differently from their more vocal colleagues.
Breaking the quiet person stigma
Quiet employees can often be misdiagnosed by managers as simply having an undeveloped ‘soft’ skill.
As a result, they are sent on assertiveness training and public speaking courses, with the aim of eradicating their quietness and ‘improving their confidence’.
The operative word here is ‘sent’ – these ventures are rarely negotiated! I recently spoke to one quiet woman who had been sent on an assertiveness training course not once, but five times in her career.
These constant efforts to ‘improve’ and transform quiet people into more socially energetic characters can be extremely damaging.
Microaggressions from colleagues – for example, a vigorous challenge on failing to speak up in a meeting – can also cause a great deal of stress for a quiet person. With these actions, the message they’re receiving is that they have to mask up; to act out being a different kind of person.
If this kind of ‘personality adaptation’ and advice to ‘fake it til you make it’ is forced over a long period of time, it generates a huge amount of stress and can result in anxiety, burnout and depression.
The quiet power of quiet workers
Since the 1920s, the workplace has been massively biassed towards extroverts.
Decisions made in the upper echelons of the higher and further education systems (notably Harvard Business School) favoured extrovert candidates for business courses, because they were seen to be the ones who could make rapid decisions and think clearly – a totally false premise that still exists in our education system today.
This cult of assertiveness and confidence is now heavily ingrained in our business and workplace culture.
But an increasing number of leaders are realising that, by bringing quiet employees into the fold, they can get more efficient outcomes, better decisions and a business that runs more smoothly and happily.
For both leaders and colleagues, the key to this is understanding how a quiet person’s brain processes information.
Take team meetings, for example. A quiet person will probably be thinking about the content of a one hour meeting into the beginning of the following day.
In that time, they will apply themselves in great depth to the topic, viewing it from all angles before crystallising their opinion on it. But, in most office environments, by the time the quiet person is ready to report back, the decision has been made.
The paradox for organisations is that, in their hurry to make a decision on an important issue, they’re missing out on the input of the people who’ve thought about it the hardest – typically around 40% of the whole team.
The sub-text is “we haven’t got time to wait for these people” but, as Brene Brown says,
Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behaviour.
By including everyone, you’re not ‘favouring the introverts’, you’re creating a safe container in which less socially energised and more socially energised people can work more effectively together and arrive at better decisions without wasting time.
You will spend more time cleaning up the mess from a decision made without full input than you will by allowing a few extra hours for everyone to process the information.
Inefficiency affects the bottom line. Bad decisions affect the bottom line. Workplace illness and stress affects the bottom line.
Many of the more enlightened corporations are now recognising the risks of making decisions on incomplete evidence and are delaying decision-making until the whole team has had a chance to process the information.
Bringing out the best in quiet employees
There are lots of good leaders who recognise that they’re working with quiet people. But, although they can identify someone as quiet, they don’t know why and are, consequently, less able to support them.
My advice to leaders is to spend a little time getting to know the individuals on your team and understanding their quietness. This will go a long way to encouraging them to feel supported and beginning to speak up.
Changes to meeting structures can also bring quiet people more effectively into discussions, help them feel more included and able to speak their part.
Here are a few simple changes that can have a profound impact:
- Provide more time for meetings. This is commonly met with objections but even adding an extra 30 minutes can allow time for more voices to be heard.
- Employ more equitable facilitation techniques, so quiet people have the time and space to talk, and the meeting isn’t dominated by more vocal team members.
- Allow time for the full thinking process to take place by delaying decisions for 12 hours or so.
- Provide all attendees with more time to prepare, distributing papers and reports before the meeting rather than during it.
- Encourage allyship. Pairing up socially energetic and quiet people will often reveal a wealth of previously unrecognised shared values. This can be an incredibly powerful pairing where both parties have a great deal to learn from each other.
Ultimately, the most valuable gifts a leader can give a quiet person is the gift of time and listening – most quiet people are willing to share what’s going on in their heads; they just need some help stepping over the threshold of anxiety.
If you’re a quiet person yourself, my advice is to get together with the other quiet folk on your team and talk about what’s happening.
Stop thinking that it’s up to you as an individual to struggle for what you need, and recognise that roughly 40% of your team will be thinking like you at any given time.
Often, it’s not the quality of our work that holds us back – it’s the quality of our courage and ambition.
Be Bold – Aim High.
About the Author.
Pete Mosley specialises in delivering talks and workshops for quiet people, those who work with and manage them, and those who live with and love them.
His work is about helping people grow in confidence – in themselves and their ideas, and in connecting persuasively with other people at work and in life. It’s also about helping organisations explore ways in which quieter people can find their voice at work.
Pete’s latest book, A Quiet Person’s Guide to Life and Work can be found on Amazon UK.