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Why it’s OK to be quiet in meetings at work

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Anna Brech
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Hustle culture is on the rise right now, according to a new article in the New York Times.

Today’s new generation of employees are obsessed with “owning the moment”: constantly striving to shout loudly about what we do, and playing out our work identities bigger and bolder than ever before.

While this often appears on social media under slogans such “rise and grind”, it also inevitably plays out in the board room: encouraging us to speak out, take up space, own our ideas. 

The pressure to aggressively self-promote ourselves has never been stronger. And yet, if you’re one of the 50% of people who fall on the introvert spectrum, this trend can feel alarming.

But if you’re busy berating yourself for being too quiet in meetings, take it easy. Here is why it’s perfectly OK: 

The loudest person isn’t always right

If you’re known to be quiet at work, you may have been urged by a manager to speak up more. Such an approach is well-intended, of course, but it ignores the fact that group performance is often derailed by the loudest person.

In her best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts, author Susan Cain describes a string of situations in which groups are led off-track by most assertive and talkative person present. 

“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,” writes Cain. “This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones get squished. Yet group dynamics suggest this is exactly what happens.”

Studies that show more vocal and fast-talking people are perceived to be smarter than their quiet counterparts: even when this perception holds no sway at all.

Performance actually becomes worse in groups 

Time and again, studies show that group brainstorms aren’t the most effective way to generate ideas . 

To the contrary, they dilute ingenuity: some people don’t pull their weight, others are too scared of judgement to fully express themselves. And often, we end up mimicking our brainstorming partners; leading to a conformity that is the very opposite of fresh, vibrant thinking. 

“Group creativity may be an overestimated method to generate ideas and individual brainstorming exercises (such as written creativity drills) may be more effective,” conclude researchers in this 2010 paper.

If you’re the kind of person who is quiet in meetings, bear in mind that group work is overvalued. Instead, solitude may be what you need to provide the brilliant ideas most brainstorm sessions are missing. 

Being quiet doesn’t mean you’re a walkover

Being loud is so hyped in our society, that we often equate quietness with being submissive or timid. Hence, the urge to “lean in” and “take up space”; messages that spring up everywhere in the world of business.

But, as Cain points out in her book, some of history’s most resolute minds were also famous introverts, from Rosa Parks, the woman whose quiet act of resistance sparked the most famous Civil Rights movement of all time, to Mahatma Gandhi (a man who once said, “We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time”).

Being quiet in meetings doesn’t mean you lack conviction or backbone; quite the opposite. It’s likely you’re tuning into the art of listening an awful lot more, which is a powerful tool in its own right. 

You’re no less determined or committed than the loudest people in the room; you just have a different way of expressing yourself.

Women working together around a computer

Being quiet is a skill you can own

We live in an age of loud; so much so, that we place blind faith in group work and vocal people, even when neither will necessarily lead to the best or most productive results.

And slowly, the business world may be waking up to this fact.

Even now, leading entrepreneurs are looking to re-write the rules of meetings, with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos innovating the so-called “silent meeting” of 30 minutes quiet time, for better quality ideas. 

So, the next time you feel yourself getting anxious for not speaking out in a meeting, just remember: 

a.) being quiet in a meeting is a skill of its own, leading to better listening, focus and empathy skills - all of which have a very positive impact on teamwork 

b.) Most meetings, and the loudest people in them, are overrated anyway; and even if your own workplace can’t recognise this yet, sooner or later, they will. And…

c.) You may simply better at expressing your ideas outside of a meeting context. You may thrive at online brainstorms, or written creativity skills: tasks in which your mind brings about the deep focus and solitude needed for great ideas. And that’s perfectly OK; in fact, it may mean you’re more innovative than others as a result.

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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