Shy at work? Silence is not golden

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“You are too shy, too quiet. You don’t speak up in meetings and no one knows what you do or who you are outside of our immediate team. I don’t think you can be a manager here.”

I felt like he had just kicked me in the stomach. Hard. I retreated to the furthest bathroom stall and had a good cry for about seven minutes. I splashed my face with water and on my drive home cried some more. And more. Then I sat on the couch and dove into my Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey (a brand plug and my favorite ice cream).

That’s one of the first pieces of feedback I received early on in my marketing career. As I shoved ice cream in my face, I felt angry. Resentful, confused, bewildered. Most of all, defeated. After the pint was finished, I realized he was right.

I grew up painfully shy. I really didn’t speak unless spoken to. I didn’t question authority — not my parents, not my teachers, not the aunties and uncles in our small Indian community. I always practiced the “keep your head down, do good work, don’t cause trouble” mantra. I didn’t speak up. I didn’t speak my mind. I wasn’t used to letting my voice be heard.

My manager was right. His delivery was off, but what he shared was a career-defining moment for me. I would not be rewarded for being silent, for all the great thoughts running through my head that I never expressed, never shared. If I wanted to lead big teams, deliver business results and impact, and be a role model for other leaders in the building, I needed to use my voice.

People who know me today are surprised by this. “You grew up shy? Wow, I never would have guessed that.”  The version of who I am today, compared to who I was growing up and who I was early on in my career, almost look like two different women.

My journey to become a vocal leader has been a long one. It didn’t happen over a few days, or a few months; it has been a transformation years in the making. There are times when I still flounder, times when I am not sure if I should use my voice or question the value I will add.

Here are a few strategies I continue to practice in my career:

Sit up front
Small meetings, big meetings, town halls — arrive early and sit at the table or in the front section. Make your presence known. Show you are an active participant. When I have made the physical commitment to sit in a visible location, I am committing to express myself during the meeting.

Ask a killer question
Advice I received early in my career as I worked to be more vocal: Never leave a meeting without asking a question. Even if you can’t muster up the courage to make a comment, ask a question. In the beginning, I would just try to ask a clarifying question so that people in the meeting knew I was engaged and interested. As time progressed, I would ask more thoughtful, insightful questions. And then, there’s crafting the killer question. A killer question for me is one that really gets other colleagues thinking, continues great dialogue and opens up the floor to get others to speak their minds.

Make the comment
Too often in my career, I have left a meeting where I replayed in my head the comment I should have made and never did. I have left a meeting where someone made the same comment I wanted to make, but didn't. I have left a meeting filled with regret that I could have added value. My perspective today is very different. If someone invites me to a meeting, I have an obligation to share my opinion. Otherwise it is a wasted opportunity and I have let others and myself down. So make the comment.  I promise it sounds worse in your head than it does when the words come out of your mouth.  And the more you make comments, the easier it becomes.

Silence is not golden when it comes to career-defining moments and wanting to lead with impact.

Blog Author Bio

Mita Mallick is director of diversity outreach and inclusion at Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods manufacturing companies.

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