By: Kim Moshlak on February 18th, 2016

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How to Best Engage the Quiet Employee

Communication | Diversity & Inclusion | Business Management & Strategy | Best Practices | Employee Relations

How to Best Engage the Quiet EmployeeYou have an exciting work environment...people are running around like crazy, lots of energy and enthusiasm all over the place, and everyone is having a great time...except for one employee who doesn’t “get into that”.  This employee is sitting at the desk, quietly doing his/her work.  And you notice when you are in meetings, this employee rarely speaks up.  Do you see them as a hindrance to your organization?  Hopefully not!

When I was growing up, my family was very close to another family.  We did everything together from vacations, holidays, birthday celebrations…everything.  The patriarch of that family was a very quiet man.  He could often be found sitting in a rocker in the backyard whittling.  He didn’t say much, and when he did, everyone listened.  He was incredibly intelligent, and chose to live his life observing and taking information in.  He once told me there was enough talking in the world, people need to learn to listen. This is a powerful lesson I haven’t forgotten.

When I'm coaching my clients facing this scenario, I remind them that there have been very successful leaders who have also been quiet a refer them to one of my favorite teachers. Jim Collins, in his book, “Good to Great” says Level 5 Leaders (leaders who have taken companies from good to great according to his research) have “a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are ambitious, to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves.”  He further says they “display compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated.” Other words he uses to describe Level 5 Leaders include “quiet, dogged, humble, shy, reserved, modest, gracious, calm, shares or deflects the credit…”  Darwin Smith of Kimberly-Clark and David Maxwell of Fannie Mae made significant changes to their organizations, turning them around and driving them to greatness.  They are both considered to be quiet (and not really famous) leaders. As you can see, being quiet isn’t all that bad.

Engaging Quiet Employees in the Workplace

Having employees who are different than you has definite advantages.  Different experiences and opinions help you see things a bit differently, giving you more information when making decisions. So how do we integrate those quiet employees into the workforce?  We need to consider a few things.

Quiet Vs. Introverted Traits

First, it’s important not to confuse quiet with shy or introverted.  These can be markedly different traits. I’ve known plenty of people who were introverted, and were able to interact with others in a way that made them seem extroverted. They simply learned how to morph into the style that works best with the specific work they do. Introversion and extroversion really relates to how someone gets his/her energy.  If a person is energized by being around others, they are typically considered an extrovert.  If their energy is drained by being around others, they are likely introverts.  And if you know an introvert is drained by working with others, you may presume they would likely be more productive in smaller settings than in larger/group settings.

In many situations, these quiet employees have another redeeming attribute, and that is they have a tendency to help pull back on the reigns a bit when things get moving too fast.  These employees are comfortable with silence, and allow for time to think, or rethink, the solution to a problem, or the best path forward to solve a problem. In this area alone, the quiet employee has great value to the leader who moves at the speed of light.

Remember my family friend? Another thing about the quiet employee is their creativity. Their differing thought processing allows time for them to consider many different situations. They can be contingency planners, and help to see things from a different perspective.

Back to the quiet employee. It’s important to determine why this person is quiet:

  1. Is it a part of their personality? Are they modest and reserved?
  2. Has something caused this person to change the way they interact in the workplace? Were they originally enthusiastic and now they are quiet? Chances are, something has changed for them.  It could be the environment, it could be a policy, and it could be something outside the work environment.

Once we know why our employee is quiet, we need to determine a course of action for engaging them.  If the employee is naturally quiet, there’s not much you can do to influence their behavior, so embracing it would be your best option. In general, these employees tend to be loyal and dedicated to the work they do. They may enjoy it…they just don’t “gush” it.

If you can determine an event that may have made the difference, you’ll have the option of impacting that change. What’s the best way to find out? Maybe you can trace it back to a specific action, maybe not.  The easiest way is to simply ask. And if you have a great relationship with the employee, you’ll get a much better response than if you don’t.

a person who feels appreciatedThe bottom line has to do with your relationship, and your ability as a leader to accept those who are different from you.  This is a critical component to driving engagement with any employee, and especially with those who are quiet. One of my favorite quotes by an unknown author is, “A person who feels appreciated will always do more than what is expected”. Just remember to treat your employees the way they want to be treated and you’ll get the most out of them, no matter who they are and what their personality and style bring to the workplace!