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Your quiet worker might be the most valuable

They are frequently misunderstood as timid or unassertive. But they can make for successful leaders, great listeners and creative workers

For the quiet worker, who prefers to stay away from the spotlight, it can be challenging to navigate the hyper-connected corporate world where extroversion and charisma are usually favoured more.
For the quiet worker, who prefers to stay away from the spotlight, it can be challenging to navigate the hyper-connected corporate world where extroversion and charisma are usually favoured more. (iStockphoto)

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Sana Shawkath Khan does not like talking about or making a big deal of her work or professional achievements. Work should speak for itself, Khan, 30, believes. While such an approach offers her peace of mind and more job satisfaction, it has led to instances where she lost interesting opportunities to colleagues who were louder about their work and, hence, more “visible” to managers.

The sidelining eventually took a toll on Khan, so much so that she left the companies where she didn’t feel valued enough. “I can’t do a constant display of progress and achievements. That’s just not me. I lost my voice at previous companies where I felt disrespected. That shifted here,” Khan says, referring to her present organisation, Bengaluru-based events and talent management firm Overture Entertainment, where she heads the communications department. “My team looks up to me for my reliability; I feel supported.”

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For the quiet worker, who prefers to stay away from the spotlight, it can be challenging to navigate the hyper-connected corporate world where extroversion and charisma are usually favoured more. It can result in lost promotions, lower salaries than extroverted colleagues with similar experience, and being taken for granted.

Research shows extroverts often get paid more and have an advantage when climbing the corporate ladder since they are better at networking and come across as more confident. History, however, offers enough examples to prove that success is unrelated to personality type. Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Albert Einstein are some well-known examples of successful introverts. In fact, studies show introverts often make better leaders because they are creative thinkers and more focused on their job.

“By their nature, introverts tend to get passionate about one, two or three things in their life,” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, in a 2015 article in The Wall Street Journal. “And in the service of their passion for an idea they will go out and build alliances and networks and acquire expertise and do whatever it takes to make it happen.”

Speaking about your work and achievements has its advantages, especially since it makes a person more “visible”. But quietude has its merits as well and recognising and supporting diverse work styles will benefit organisations as well as individuals with different personalities.

A desire for focus

Joel Miranda, 50, has stayed true to his reserved style of working throughout his advertising career for over two decades. “I like to think that I come from an empathetic space, earning, not demanding, respect. Being non-confrontational has worked for me. People have looked up to me as a leader,” says the founder of Bengaluru marketing firm Warring Brands. “But it’s an approach that takes time for others to understand and appreciate. It takes longer for introverts to establish themselves and inspire and convince people.”

Introverts are commonly misunderstood as anti-social, shy or under-confident. In her book, Quiet, Cain says introverts prefer a calmer environment, where they can concentrate quietly and listen more than talk and think before speaking. Introverts are not necessarily shy. They just tend to be more introspective.

Miranda isn’t shy but not speaking too often has not always worked out in his favour. “Younger colleagues have occasionally managed me more than their own work because they felt I won’t be aggressive with them. Maybe I was idealistic in trying to get them to love their job,” says Miranda. “Eventually, I struck a balance.”

Like Miranda, many quiet workers find the noise and pressure of being on social media tiring. Khan finds it useful for exploring brands and information but hates the stress on visibility for professional growth. “Whenever I do something big, I feel I need to put it up, but don’t really want to,” she says. “I have goals and aspirations but may not want to share them.”

Miranda, who only uses social media to follow client brands, says for younger people today it has become a must to play the “talking game” for professional growth. “I’m relieved that I am not at that stage. I had a word-of-mouth LinkedIn before LinkedIn existed. This frenzied ‘look at me’ approach induces anxiety.”

In today’s world, even organisations encourage workers to share their achievements and success more openly, especially on social media. Latha Iyer, the chief human resources officer at Zaggle Prepaid Ocean Services Ltd, however, says it can’t be generalised. “It really depends on organisations, the nature of business and roles. In a meritocracy culture-based organisation, which thrives on data-driven decision making the work and the performer attracts attention,” says Iyer. “There is no scope for biasedness.”

Making space for all

All personality types have strengths but can benefit from different approaches. A 2021 Harvard Business Review article by McGill University professor and professional coach Karl Moore that included learnings from various industry veterans and self-identified introverts, states that quiet workers can excel at seemingly extroverted careers, like in the fields of consulting and investment banking, through their skills in listening, deep thinking, building meaningful relationships and adaptability.

Hima Arora, an educator at a Noida school, says the quiet worker eventually adapts to find a balance. Colleagues have frequently taken credit for her ideas because of her quiet nature, she shares. “But with experience, I now speak up at the correct forum to get my fair share of success,” she says. “Organisations must create an inclusive environment that values different work styles and their unique strengths.”

Putting pressure on quiet workers into continual extroversion is unhelpful, for there are many merits to quiet achievement. “In the advertising industry, my work style has been immensely helpful. I find a sense of calm and can focus on solutions to a problem,” says Miranda. “Those are moments when people have respected my leadership. I like to start meetings with silence for a few minutes. Initially there are some giggles, but soon people understand its value.”

Amika Kler, an HR consultant in Goa, says quiet workers’ deep thinking and listening skills help them make strong leaders. “They are good observers, taking their time to analyse the workings of an organisation. Organisations can do more to be friendly to varied personalities and help them find their voice,” says Kler, adding that silent or introverted employees are often the hardest working and rarely ask for rewards.

Constant meetings, phone or video conversations, brainstorming sessions, noise and the absence of space to allow deeper contemplation can be stressful for the quiet achiever. “Sensitivity training is important to understand body language cues,” says Khan. “People may not participate immediately in a group, but be more comfortable in a one-on-one conversation.”

Organisations should reward and encourage employee contributions based on merit, recommends Iyer. “And also provide opportunities to work on challenging assignments regardless of personality type.”

Khan is optimistic that the future of the workplace may become more result-oriented, allowing all kinds of personalities to thrive. Miranda agrees: “There’s definitely space for us, though our style may never be as sexy.”

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