a woman holding a finger over her lips in a "hush" gesture

Giving Voices to the Quiet

Susan Cain posits in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” that there is no correlation between people who speak well and people who have the best ideas. In my experience that has been proven true repeatedly. The ideas of the more reserved members of the team are every bit as important as those from the more outspoken members.

I write and speak frequently about the duties that I consider essential to being a leader day to day, but among those duties that I take part in for the long-term health of my team—part of my leadership long game—is to give a voice to the quiet members of the team.

A thing that I frequently see when I take on leadership of a team is that there are invariable numerous muted voices on the team, and the bearers of those voices—and the ideas they contain—are uniformly not being given the weight that they deserve. Leaders need to learn that the reserved, the shy, the introverts, the unsure of themselves, and the conflict averse have brilliant ideas bubbling underneath a surface that is waiting for someone to put in the effort to breach.

And make no mistake, it takes quite a bit of effort for most of us; me especially. As anybody who has ever met me can attest, I can be bombastic.1 When I get excited or enthusiastic, my voice gets loud and my words come quickly and relentlessly; my exuberance can result in a considerable amount of “me” in a given meeting. In my experience, the same is true to varying degrees for a lot of leaders; the selection bias in place for leadership tends toward those that are outgoing or at least are situationally outgoing. Because of this, it requires a focused, conscious approach to ensuring that I’m not only avoiding drowning out the quiet voices, but actively making it possible for them to speak.

For a variety of reasons, the softer voices have decided that their ideas are not worthwhile or not worth sharing. Perhaps they suffer from impostor syndrome and feel that their ideas have little merit; or they have volunteered ideas in the past only to see them ignored or (worse) perverted into something terrible; maybe they’re simply conflict averse and don’t want to have to “fight” for their idea.

There are countless possible reasons for your teammates’ reticence to speak up, and it is important that you seek out, as a first step, those reasons for each member of your team from whom you wish to hear. There is no one size fits all solution, you will have to apply a solution uniquely to each type of situation.

Tailoring your approach to the individual is profoundly important. Impostor syndrome sufferers might need to have a private forum in the beginning to speak their ideas initially before you encourage them to share with the broader team. Those that have had their ideas stomped or ruined might require being given some degree of stewardship over the direction of their idea’s implementation throughout its lifecycle until they can learn to trust you and the team. Those that are conflict averse might need the brainstorming environment to be just a little more contained. Different strokes, as they say, for different folks.

There are, however, some more universal tactics you can apply. For example, you can stop giving preference for ideas expressed authoritatively—ideas presented softly and preceded by “don’t you think that maybe it MIGHT be a good idea if…” have every bit as much of a chance to be as great as ideas broadcast in the format of “Obviously we should…” or some other such declaration. I am guilty of this as much as anybody, I speak almost exclusively in broad declarations of ideas to which I am only weakly attached. A strategy that I use is to go out of my way to end one of my declarations with some indication that I’m not directing, but brainstorming—something akin to “…but that’s just an idea, who else has a thought?” I even do this for other people’s declarations; following such a sentiment with “…that’s an excellent idea, I like it when we brainstorm, who else has something.”2

You can actively look for and engage speakers that are waiting for a break in conversation that will likely never come—creating that break for them, preferably without calling them out directly. There are a number of tactics for inserting a break, but I like to use an activity halt of some sort. If we’re not yet whiteboarding the ideas, I’ll stop the discussion for second when I see that it has become really focused on a small part of the group and ask one of the heavy participants to go to the whiteboard and write our ideas down. If we’re already whiteboarding, I might call for a pause so that we can group our ideas in some artificial way. Regardless of the method, the goal is to create a moment within a frantic conversation that will allow a more subdued voice to insert itself.

Most importantly, though, I listen. It’s not enough to hear and parrot a great idea from a more sedate member of the team, nor is simply putting them on the spot going to provide long-term relief. Instead, try powering up or boosting their message before you hand it back to them. When I hear—in the middle of a rowdy discussion—a shy voice starting a thought only to be drowned out, I loan them some of my influence as I bring them into the conversation. Something like “…hey, sorry to interrupt but…[person]…did you just say [paraphrase of what they said]? I’m interested, can you expand?” The key to this strategy is to do it both with ideas that you are excited by and those that you are not. You have to make a safe space for ideas to be brought up and discarded with impunity; and you don’t do that by cherry-picking your way through only your soft-spoken teammates’ best ideas.

There are myriad ways to contribute to the more reserved folks; I highly suggest reading Cain’s book if you’re interested in learning more. If you look at your team today, I’m confident that you will find that there are numerous meek voices at the table; probably more than those that aren’t. Consider the amount of expertise—the number of potentially great ideas—that are being left on the table if you don’t find a way to give voices to the quiet, then take action!


1 If I were to put it very charitably; one could also use the terms “loudmouth” or “loutish boor” with equal accuracy, but that wouldn’t be very nice. Let’s stick with bombast over pomposity, shall we? (back)

2 I assure you, as hokey as it looks in print, if delivered sincerely, it absolutely does not seem as cheesy in person. Trust me? (back)