There seems to be an automatic assumption that when we talk about quiet people, they are introverts. In many cases this is true, but not always. Having worked on the Quietly Powerful movement for a while now, this is definitely not the case and worth keeping in mind.
While many books and articles have been written about introverts, I have encountered many ambiverts (people with both introvert and extrovert preferences) and even extroverts who face the challenge of being quietly disempowered in the professional context.
We discussed this very point in the current Quietly Powerful Virtual Program cohort, where half the group were not that strong on the introvert scale. Some were in the middle, a few were more extroverted.
There are other reasons for people being quieter in the workplace. People may be quieter because of:
Their cultural conditioning. Many people are challenged by the conditioning of not speaking up against authority or against mainstream views. I know of extroverts who are very chatty and social with friends and family who clamp up in the workplace. Professionals from traditional cultures often relate to this challenge, but there are many others who have had such conditioning.
Their relationship with power and authority. Whether it’s cultural or not, you may have had an upbringing where you were expected to fear and comply with authority. One woman at a breakfast event raised that she had a strict Catholic background where she was taught to be a “good girl” by being compliant. Most traditional school systems rewarded compliance and punished disobedience.
Being in the minority. When we don’t feel we are in the mainstream – because of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, physical abilities, physical appearance, personality, thinking style, holding an unpopular opinion, new to the group or simply don’t feel included – we can go quiet.
Being conflict avoidant. A number of people I coached are more on the extrovert end and they are still quiet, more so because they are naturally accommodating. When you are overly accommodating, it can lead to conflict avoidance. Many of us dislike conflict and stay quiet hoping that the conflict will go away, which can be unhelpful.
Fitting in over-rides expression. Even if conflict is unlikely, some of us may remain quiet or just go along with others because we want to fit in the group we are with. We fear standing out and not being accepted or liked and hold back from expressing ourselves.
Boxing people into stereotypes. Whether they are indeed quieter or not, we may perceive some people to be quiet because we are unconsciously selective about what we notice (confirmation bias – we look for and only see what we believe). For example, Asian women often face this challenge due to the stereotype of being reserved and deferential.
One final reason why someone may be quiet is that:
They are deliberately using the power of quiet. I can think of a number of effective leaders, introvert, extrovert and in between, who use the power of quiet effectively and intentionally. The power of quiet, whether it shows up as stillness, mindfulness, listening, observation, stepping back, slowing down, reflection, deep and creative thinking, connecting the dots… are under-utilised and under-valued leadership strengths. Diana Renner and Steven D’Souza called these “negative capabilities” as important leadership capabilities in her new book, Not Doing. I love that.
The important point is that there is a difference between being quietly disempowered and quietly powerful (more on this in a future article). And that this is not necessarily to do with introversion. Human beings are so much more complex than introversion and extroversion. Many of us are a mix of both and more.
Imagine if more of us – introvert, extrovert and anywhere in between – could access the state of quietly powerful and use them as leadership strengths. This will not only allow quieter professionals to see their own leadership potential but also lift the quality of leadership to meet the challenges of the increasingly complex world.
Other relevant articles: