When I first started at Cisco (the second time), I remember being in a customer meeting where I had no idea what was going on. As is typical for vendor meetings, Cisco employees outnumbered the customer by 3 to 1. Someone from our side was presenting, though I don’t really remember about what. I didn’t say anything because I was still pretty new, and frankly didn’t have much to say. A Distinguished engineer, whom I know opposed my hiring, pulled me aside after the meeting and said to me with a smile: “You know at Cisco we judge people on how much they speak in meetings.” He was obviously implying that by keeping my mouth shut, I was proving my lack of value to the company. I never really held it against that engineer, who wasn’t a bad guy. But he reminded me of a problem in the corporate world, this belief that you have to always be talking.
I default to keeping my mouth shut when I don’t have anything important to say. This probably is the result of being a child of divorce, but regardless I’ve always hated how much noise and talk are valued in our society. Twitter is just a permanent gripe session, talk radio (whether the in-your-face conservative or sedate NPR variety) is just ceaseless hot air, and the more channels of communication we open up, the worse it becomes. In the corporate world, decisions are often made in meetings based on the opinions of the most verbally aggressive in the room. There is an underlying assumption to this approach to decision making: that the loudest have the most valuable opinions, and the quietest the least. But isn’t the opposite the case? How many loudmouths have you known who spout nonsense, and how many super-intelligent quiet people do you know? Some of the smartest people I’ve met are introverts. And yet we seem to think if you’re willing to express an opinion loudly, then you’re worth following.
The problem with meeting culture in particular is that it doesn’t value thought. I once had a VP complain to me that someone couldn’t “think on his feet”. Most of the time, thinking on your feet doesn’t mean thinking at all. It is simply reaction. Thought takes time. It requires reflection. In corporate culture, we often prize how quickly you react, not how deeply you think.
This is not to say introverts should never try to overcome their shyness, nor that vocal people are always less intelligent. However, I think as leaders in the corporate community, we can take steps to improve our meeting culture so that unheard but important voices have their chance to contribute. This can be done a few ways:
- Ensuring equal air time for participants in meetings. If someone is talking too much, limit his time. Call on the quiet folks and introverts explicitly to get their opinions.
- Don’t make major decisions in meetings unless there is legitimate time pressure to do so. At the end of a meeting, allow people to go back and reflect on what was discussed, possibly run through it in a chat room, and reconvene later when people have had time to think about the subject at hand.
- Stop evaluating people simply on how much they speak in meetings. Realize, particularly if you are a vocal-type, that people contribute in different ways.
- Try to minimize interruptions in presentations and to save questions for the end. I like to hear a presenter lay out a story in a logical fashion, and when presenters are constantly interrupted, it disturbs my ability to follow. For those of us who are more contemplative thinkers, our ability to participate is hampered when presenters can never finish a thought.
Part of the problem is that many, if not most, who rise to leadership positions in the corporate world are the verbally aggressive and highly vocal type. They often cannot understand how anyone could possibly approach things in a different way, and take quietness as a sign of weakness, indecision, or unintelligence. For those leaders, recognizing the value of quieter individual contributors and leaders will help them and their organization.
Now that I’m done spouting off it’s time to log off for some silence of my own.