I love to talk. It’s one of my favorite things and writing this blog is an extension of my passion for expressing myself. I have lots of opportunities to talk at work. It’s one of the privileges of being a boss as my staff are under a certain obligation to listen to me. I try not to lord it over them, though. I recognize they don’t want to listen to me go on ad nauseum about whatever topic I happen to find fascinating, so I try to keep it relevant to them. Of course, I don’t always succeed in that effort.
Despite my love for talking, I find myself, on occasion, falling silent in work meetings. One of the other privileges – or curses – of management is spending at least 50 percent of my time in meetings with other executroids discussing important topics: goals, measures, policies, legislation, etc. Yes, I realize that many people find those subjects excruciating, but they are the bread and butter of management; the tools of my trade. While I occasionally pine for a larger percentage of time available outside of meetings to spend working on projects with staff, the presentations of management matters are usually quite stimulating. However, when the inevitable “Any questions?” query is posed, I often reply, “No, thanks. I’m good.” Such a noise-canceling response has a chilling effect and, in the boardroom, can feel like a slightly risky proposition.
I fear that my refusal to interrogate can be interpreted as a lack of leadership ability. If I don’t ask insightful questions, I must not be very managerial. I’m not concerned about actually being bereft of insight – cuz I am way smart – but that I will be perceived as such. Appearances are important and casting clever questions is rewarded with smiles and approval.
My silence is sometimes based on my belief that the topic warrants no further discussion. Even a seasoned management veteran can grow weary of a symposium on the finer points of the travel expense reimbursement policy. Other times, questions simply elude me, as I take the information presented at face value. However, my silence doesn’t mean I’ve accepted it outright. Rather, I am pondering what I’ve heard and, sometime later, the information will coalesce in my mind, and I shall be at peace, or I will think of a question and send an inquiring email.
I was recently commiserating with a colleague about this “silence” problem. She told me her supervisor encourages her to speak up more in meetings, but she often finds her curiosity cupboards bare in the critical, public moment. In those instances, she wants to shout out that her silence does not indicate a lack of natural curiosity, that she has ideas and insights…just not right now! She’s young and just beginning her tour of duty in the management realm. She hates to disappoint and worries that she will be judged unfairly. I assured her it’s not a problem. Fortunately, our organization has a reasonably high tolerance for introversion, and our shared fears are mostly of our own making. But it could be better. American culture sometimes overvalues the extrovert – the guy who can wax poetic about travel expense reimbursement for hours – while overlooking the power of silence. Susan Cain has written a book on the subject called Quiet: The Power of Introverts. I haven’t read it, but, based on her TED talk, which I have watched, I imagine it’s quite compelling.
I can’t claim to be an introvert. Those who know me would likely scoff at the notion based on how much I love to hear myself talk. But I do have an appreciation for introversion. I married one, so it was in my best interest to shut up from time to time and listen to her. Understanding her need for silence has enhanced my appreciation – both in others and myself – for quiet reflection, tolerance of the passage of time for careful consideration, and gratitude for the quiet insights that emerge.
As much as I am wont to oral rambling, I prefer that my speech be considered valuable and useful. I don’t feel a compelling need to fill space with words, whether in the boardroom or at my writing desk, which is one reason these posts aren’t more regularly produced. If I haven’t figured out what to say, I don’t want to inflict it on you, the reader. If you ever find one of my posts to be a bit dull or unrefined – perhaps this one – it’s likely because I’ve succumbed to the pressure of a self-imposed deadline and published before it was well-considered, adequately ruminated over, and properly revised. If that is the case, I do hope you will forgive me and stay tuned for the next one. I assure you it will be management-free. In fact, it will probably be about grilling. Mmmm…grilling.