What's wrong with being too quiet at work?
November 21, 2016 11:54 PM   Subscribe

I just started my second month in a 6-month temp assignment covering for someone's maternity leave. Everything is great, except it seems that my very quiet personality might be causing issues.

I just started my second month in a 6-month temp assignment covering for someone's maternity leave. My coworkers are warm and lovely people, and the work itself is something I have substantial experience doing (database management and general administrative support). I believe that the sufficient and thorough job training I had during my first month will set me up for success.

I'm determined to do a fantastic job, but I have this unshakeable unease from feeling like I'm a bad fit with the organization. I consider myself hardworking and pleasant to be around; I make an effort to be friendly with coworkers and always join them for coffee and lunch. But I am also aware that because I'm so quiet I don't come across as a very effective team player. My boss frequently points out how quiet I am and that I don't speak up during meetings. I don't think this is something I can change--I don't want to say things for the sake of saying things.

I'm seeking anecdotes/advice on how to frame this situation so I can spend the next 5 months not dreading going to work every morning. This is a terrific opportunity and I want to do well.

Thank you.
posted by tackypink to Work & Money (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
When I tell my employees to speak up more, what I'm saying is: "I want to hear your opinions on how this work will be accomplished. Do you have any opinions on the ideas proposed? Do you have any proposals? Are there any pros and cons that should be considered?"

Answering those subtext questions is almost never seen as "talking just to talk." If they trust your work, it's seen as valued input.
posted by samthemander at 12:04 AM on November 22, 2016 [30 favorites]

Same as samthemander — if someone on my team is good at what they do, I want their input both in private and in team settings!
posted by third word on a random page at 12:33 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your boss might be interpreting your lack of participation as a lack of interest; if so, I think it might be worth putting at least one thing forward in most meetings, so your boss has a clue you're engaged. You're temping (and new) - maybe you're concerned you'll be judged on what you say? I can see why that might be daunting. Maybe, think of it as getting participation marks in class?

If you're worried, and stuck for ideas because of it, attend to how others participate for guidance on tone, etc. (But generally, try to phrase things positively [vs. critically, if you're more of a troubleshooting type of thinker]. "Yes and...")
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:39 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm always conscious of the fact sometimes people don't feel as though they can offer their opinion so will publicly encourage quieter members of my teams and sometimes discourage those who are regularly heard.

As a result of this if one of them came to me and asked if their reticence was seen as a negative it would give me a chance to explain myself and put them at ease.

Perhaps have a word with your boss to see if they're just being accommodating or if they see your reluctance to speak up as a negative.
posted by fullerine at 12:42 AM on November 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

I also don't know how useful it is to think of this as changing your personality - you're still the same person - you're just adding a new skill to your repertoire. I think it's only going to help to learn to feel comfortable communicating in these contexts, going forward.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:45 AM on November 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

Two things you might like to reframe:
You're interpreting his feedback very broadly- as there being a need for you to become less quiet in general at work. Can you not just actively and vocally participate in meetings? This wouldn't preclude a general disposition towards circumspection in general. You probably don't even need to do social lunches on that feedback, at least. Perhaps framing it as a whole scale change is making it all seem a bit more drastic than it is?

Secondly, seeing contributing to meetings as requiring you to speak for the sake of saying things is missing the point, perhaps?
I think the request to give input in meetings is, generally, fair- the purpose of meeting is very often to get feedback or establish consensus. At the very least to establish a willingness to proceed with a plan. If you don't contribute to this then you are, in effect, not doing a part of your job.

Of course a lot of people waffle pointlessly at meetings, but unless the meetings are poorly run you should be able to contribute appropriately without doing so, no?
posted by jojobobo at 12:50 AM on November 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

Having said all that- taking some time to warm up is normal and you could also probably just explain that you're still taking things in. But as a general rule, I would try to see the eliciting of your professional opinion at a meeting as normal and part of why you're paid, rather than as a personal intrusion.
posted by jojobobo at 1:05 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I was a consultant, they used to advise that you should say one thing every 30 minutes in a meeting. It can be a smart question, or an affirmation, or input, but it should be *something*. The logic was that if you didn't do this, then the client would get the impression you weren't tuned in or listening.

Are you comfortable asking questions? That's what I did in a circumstance where I didn't feel confident to give input.
posted by frumiousb at 1:52 AM on November 22, 2016 [17 favorites]

It might help to try to put yourself in your boss' shoes. Running a meeting with people who aren't giving clear feedback is discouraging. If you were running the meeting, what signals would you want to receive to make you feel the meeting had been worthwhile?
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:52 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sharing my experience in the hope that you may find something of interest.

I was in a similar situation some time ago. I was pulled into a long-running project, whose team members had been meeting regularly for the past 8-9 months. It was a complex project and I didn't want to be seen as someone who "asked stupid questions because he did not read up on the technical aspects" Or as a "know-it-all-jackass who is questioning our decisions in retrospect". So, I just sat through those meetings except for affirmations and smiles.

I was asked the same question as you, but with a lot more smirking. I then started participating by just restating what was being said, some times, much better than what many people had waffled over a long time. Something on the lines of," In order to avoid the edge cases of A, B or C, we are going to do 1 and 2. Cases D and E still need to be resolved, but we are also not sure if doing 1 and 2 would cause other problems. Sam and Lucy will investigate any side effects, while Matt and I will look at D and E. Is my understanding correct?"

Over a period of time, I started throwing a question to one of the more friendlier members, one which I know will not stump them but cause them to respond with "Good question. Here's how it works..."

As others have said, participating in meetings by sharing your knowledge/expertise/concerns or even possible issues to watch out for is considered "required" in most professional contexts.
posted by theobserver at 3:00 AM on November 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

In meetings, even if you don't have something to say, try speaking up to support somebody else's idea. A few words like "I think that's a good idea" can go a long way. Failing that, call out something that somebody else did to support your work since the last meeting.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 5:30 AM on November 22, 2016 [11 favorites]

You say that if you spoke up in meetings you would be "saying things for the sake of saying things," which implies that your mind is a complete blank in these meetings - that there are no words in your head waiting to be expressed, so the only way to speak would be make pointless things up.

I'm sure that's not the case, but often when you're new in a job, you suppress any opinion-forming about the place and the way it runs, because you feel like you're not knowledgeable enough to have an opinion (or because you're keen to stay and don't want to cause any waves). If you've only been there a month you're maybe still in that headspace. But I bet if you thought about it, there are some opinions forming in there during these discussions. Your boss has now given you permission to voice them (or at least some of them!)

Maybe a first step towards speaking up would be making a conscious effort to tune into what your opinions are as the meeting progresses, to move you out of that "new in post, keeping schtum" headspace. Once you're listening in to what you would you say if you had carte blanche, you can formulate some appropriate comments to share.

Also - if you're staying silent all meeting, the physical act of getting your voice working in a space where you've not spoken up before can feel weird. Try getting yourself talking during the opening, informal moments of the meeting - ask someone how their day's going as you walk in the door, offer to pour someone coffee, laugh at someone's joke. Having actually physically piped up before you're in the spotlight can make it easier to deploy your voice later.
posted by penguin pie at 6:04 AM on November 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

In a former role, I was very quiet. I shared a similar philosophy, and would prefer to stay silent if I had nothing of value to offer. During the two weeks prior to my resignation, I had a much more laissez-faire attitude. I pointed out inefficiencies and made observational comments and recommendations because I had nothing to lose.

People were shocked. They had wrongfully assumed that I had nothing to offer because I had been quiet for the past two years.

You have value, your contributions are worthwhile, and you can choose to assert yourself in a way that feels true to who you are as a person. Quiet power! :)
posted by nathaole at 7:52 AM on November 22, 2016

This is really, really easy to solve.

In the next meeting, when someone says something (that you agree with, or think is a reasonable idea), wait, and then say, "I think that Person X raised a really interesting point."

That's it. That's all you have to do. Preferably, do this when your manager is in the room so that s/he hears you do this. That way, you're ticking a box for them: "Penguin Pie spoke up - check". That's all the boss is asking you to do, check a box, remove a (non)concern for them.

Do this at every other meeting, and it'll be fine.

Many years ago, I solved a brewing conflict with a boss (not because we had beef, mind you, but because this was a guy who needed to have it out with someone before he trusted or liked them -- it was weird) by staying until 6 pm 1 or 2 nights a week. I wasn't doing work at all, mind you, but my ass was in the chair, and I was giving off an impression of . . . caring? Working hard? Still not sure, because he never spoke to me when I was doing this. A week or two of this, and his demeanor toward me changed drastically, and my coworker reported that he had a very favorable impression of me.

People are so dreadfully easy to maneuver in cases like this.
posted by gsh at 7:55 AM on November 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm not the OP!
posted by penguin pie at 8:10 AM on November 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hi, hiring director here. If your supervisor is asking you to speak up in meetings, they may be considering offering you a permanent position (or they already know through the grapevine that the person you're covering isn't coming back). I coach new employees and temps on the meeting culture in our organization so that they know what's appropriate for a meeting vs what should be brought to someone at the manager or above level first.

The comments above are excellent advice, but I'm concerned about your belief that you might not be able to change. I'm an introvert most of the day, but meetings are your place to shape others' perspective of your work, while lunches are the time to shape others' perspective of your personality and collegiality. I encourage you to speak with your supervisor; maybe there's an ongoing item that the person you're covering usually brings up, or there's something you'd like to see as new or standing business on the agenda (and you're willing to take responsibility for it).
posted by catlet at 8:14 AM on November 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

At my programming dept, meetings are often a way to work out a problem and figure out a solution. If someone already knows the solution, we don't have a meeting - we just implement the solution.

But for unresolved issues, we hold meetings with multiple people in the room so we can walk through the known aspects, hear different points of view, ask questions, and bounce ideas off each other. Each thing said by one person becomes a trigger to an idea in another person's head - they wouldn't have thought of it on their own, and it is greater than the thing the first person said. It builds.

We are in a position right now where we might have to lay off some people due to budget constraints and some project shutdowns. All of these people do excellent work on their own with their own assignments and we would take a hit to lose any one of them, but the one thing that is separating the list into keep/not-keep is whether they contribute to the collective thought process during meetings.
posted by CathyG at 11:44 AM on November 22, 2016

Oh, and we don't just do that for programming issues. I'm on the "culture committee" too - where we try to choose some events for team building and parties and outside events. OMG when nobody says anything those meetings are HORRIBLE. Speak up! make a suggestion! Offer an opinion! Even if you just restate the plans and declare that you like it, it makes the meeting flow more smoothly and we can get it finished much sooner.
posted by CathyG at 11:48 AM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

One easy goal that will help you break the sound barrier: every time you nod your head in agreement, say "Yes" out loud.
posted by aimedwander at 1:49 PM on November 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been this way when I'm in a new environment. Partly because I'm an introvert, but also because for the first several months in a new space, I'm still feeling my way around, getting to understand people, workflow, etc. I always used to get dinged for being "too quiet" in my evaluations.

I got past this when I decided to speak up at least once in each meeting, as others have recommended here. At first it does feel like you're saying things just to say them, but it becomes a lot more natural. Other things that have helped me: going to people one-on-one with my ideas, prepping for meetings as much as possible and taking notes on the prepwork, having a clear sense of what my job responsibilities are and how the topic at hand will impact them. (I spent about two years in temp-like rotations where I was basically the most junior gopher on the team, and things improved tremendously when I had a more defined role to play. It sounds like you have a much clearer job description, so that last one might not apply.)
posted by basalganglia at 4:58 PM on November 22, 2016

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