My first job after graduating from college was working as an engineer in a factory in St. Louis, USA. I was excited, and it seemed like a great fit for me – numbers analysis, processes examination, efficiency testing – all tasks that were easy and safe for an introvert like me.
Well, that lasted all of about five weeks. One Friday afternoon I got an unexpected visit from my supervisor, Kurt Frank. He came into my office and said:
Paul, I’ve been in quite a few meetings with you since you began this job. In most of the meetings, you are the lead engineer. You haven’t spoken yet, and I’m here to tell you it’s unacceptable. So beginning Monday, you are on probation, and you will speak at least twice in every meeting, or at the end of that day, I will fire you. Have a nice weekend.
I already knew that not speaking in life generally didn’t work, but Kurt was the first person who cared enough (and considered it part of his job) to move me out of my comfort zone. I got the message: If you don’t speak in meetings, you don’t add value. You might as well not be there.
It’s a problem many managers or those who lead meetings face on a consistent basis: What to do about introverts?
On the one hand, it’s wonderful to have outgoing people in meetings. They jump into the conversation quickly and easily. They bring an energy that is almost always positive and uplifting. They are willing to say what others might be thinking. They assume it’s safe to speak up and act accordingly.
But I would argue that the quiet, reflective people are just as important. They often are a bit more thoughtful because they spend most of the time attentively listening to and processing the conversation. They usually have more of a sense of process. They often have more insights. They may have a better understanding of where others are in the conversation. They tend to know what is missing in the conversation. The problem is that most of this is simply missed because quiet, reflective people err on the side of not speaking.
To state this more bluntly, people walk into a meeting with one basic perspective: I’ll speak when I feel like it. Extroverts feel like it often. Introverts not so much.
So we need a different perspective: If you attend a meeting, you are obligated to participate, and that means speaking either when you are invited or when you have something to say or ask that has not yet been voiced.
If we are to enhance our conversations and improve the quality of our thinking in groups, we must broaden the level and depth of participation.
This is what can be done to remedy the situation.
Before the meeting:
- Get the agenda out well ahead of time so everyone can prepare.
- For each topic, make a list of those you would like to hear from.
- Let certain people know that you’d like them to be ready to start certain topics.
- Let the talkative people know you’d like them to hold back just a bit.
- Let the quiet people know you’d like to hear from them a couple of times during the meeting.
As the meeting first starts:
- Let people know that you are working to broaden the participation over time, and you would appreciate their support.
- Let people know that when it makes sense, you are going to ask people to speak because you want to make sure the group gets everyone’s views.
During the meeting:
- Hold the talkative people back a bit like this:
Sarah, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get a couple of other people in and then I’ll come back to you…don’t let me forget you.
- If some people have not yet spoken, call on them like this:
Jim, I’d love to know where you stand on this issue.
Gita, your group will be impacted by this. What do you think we should do?
Roy, you’ve been through these kinds of problems before—anything else we need to remember or consider?
The power of calling on the quiet people:
- It changes the dynamic of the group.
- It adds new thinking and perspectives.
- It improves their experience of being in the meeting.
- It changes how people listen.
- It indirectly trains others to be self-expressed.
- It demonstrates that the conversation is being managed.
It doesn’t matter why people tend to be quiet. Part of being an effective group is that everyone participates. Most people have something to add. Each individual is the only person with that perspective, experience, or viewpoint.
As a leader, you owe it to both the introverts and the group to get them talking. Nothing is more powerful than the ability to take those on the outside and invite them to participate. Try it. You’ll enjoy the dramatic impact it can have.