Sunday, 20 October 2013

Valuing the quiet members of staff

I love it when I stand up for what I believe in and it actually causes ripples – so often as a quiet person, even when we speak up, our voice is still not loud enough to be heard above the overwhelming noise around us.

Causing my blood to boil

A work colleague recently told me about an incident at a meeting he had attended. Someone in the team had complained about a woman in another team who was “so quiet”; “if she said three words in a day, it was a lot” and that when she had asked this colleague for feedback on an issue she was working on, the colleague had told her she needed to get back to her on that. Apparently the woman did admit, that when her quiet colleague did get back to her, her feedback was indeed very useful. “But, why couldn’t she just talk to me there and then!” the woman complained.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t at this meeting. If there is anything that can make my blood boil in an instant, it’s when I hear of someone being picked on because they’re quiet. It is so obvious that the person the woman was complaining about, is simply an introvert. My colleague said that he had pointed out at the meeting, that we are all different and work in different ways and some of us are not as vocal as others, but apparently this hadn’t been well received – just brushed off as an ‘excuse’ for not participating enough. Here we go again, I thought to myself.

An open forum

Our organisation has been through a lot of corporate restructuring lately and is still in a state of transition. To encourage open discussion from anybody within the organisation, the CEO set up a forum on our Intranet, inviting people to contact him directly with any concerns. No better time than the present then, to start changing attitudes so I sent him an email in which I highlighted the need for attitudes towards the quiet members of staff to change:

“It seems we are not immune to stereotypes. I’ve again been witness to the attitude that certain employees who go about their work quietly and don’t talk much are somehow “anti-social” or “poor team players.
“... We live in a society today that is biased towards, and praises the outspoken, the fast-to-act, the risk-takers and the ‘natural’ leaders.  Those of us who are quiet, who are sensitive, who think before we speak, who work better independently than in groups are so often overlooked as having little value to the team as a whole or in the worst case, bullied for not fitting in. The wonderful strengths we do possess, of observation and analysis, problem-solving, planning and risk assessment are brushed off and our opinions are trampled by those who dominate group discussions. It is wise to remember that those with the loudest voices, don’t always have the best ideas. It’s time to start respecting and listening to our introverts.

"... let’s be progressive in our attitude towards the thinkers and the heed-takers that are so often undervalued. Let’s encourage more on-line discussions where ideas can be submitted in a non-threatening way, and allow our thinkers time to do what they do best. ...”

Typical assumptions and unexpected repercussions

It didn’t take long for the message to filter down to my manager and team leader who called me into a meeting with serious concerns. Typical – the assumption had been made, that I was the ‘victim’ in the story and whining about unfair treatment that I had received!

After I reassured them that I had no grievance with anybody and that I was talking as a generalisation, we chatted informally; and more and more openly, about personality types and sensitivity. It was rather amusing actually – they suggested I might benefit from finding out about personality types (it is common for managers to learn this so that they can manage people better) and I ended up revealing that I’m something of an expert on the subject (naturally one doesn’t generally advertise this too openly since introversion and sensitivity are so often seen as a sign of weakness, particularly in a work environment, that mentioning this interest is like drawing a target on your forehead).

In the end, I took lead of the discussion, talking about some of the research that has been done on introversion and sensitivity and my team leader even asked me for some advice for a friend’s child she now suspected might be highly sensitive. We also thought it would be a good idea to do a personality workshop within our team, and I volunteered to host this.  What a wonderful result! At last the tide is changing...

What a stark contrast to an one company I worked for where the boss criticised me in my performance review, for not being a team player. He admitted he had no fault with my work, but was rating my performance poor because I didn’t talk enough in meetings, attend enough office drinks etc. I was stunned. He said he needed me to be “out on the field with the rest of the team”. I responded that not everyone is great at sports and that I saw myself as “the person who supported the team, who handed out the towels at the end of the game”. He dismissed this as not good enough.  Needless to say I didn’t stay there long after that and quit a few months later. What is telling though, is that after three years of no staff changes, within a year of my leaving, practically his entire staff left also. I often wonder if he later saw me differently after that – that perhaps I was the glue that kept the staff together. I was just the secretary granted, but I was the one everyone came to when they had a problem and needed advice – whether it was the photocopier that had jammed or what birthday gift to buy a girlfriend.

So, figure out who is the person in your team who hands out the towels and value them, they may be more important than you think.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing Story! I quite understand how this could be frustrating for an introvert. I had the same issues regarding not talking "too much" in my job meetings and I still have. Here in Brazil, people underestimate introverted people and overvalue the bold people quite often.
    By the way, very nice Blog. Every post is a delightful reading.