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Understanding Your Quiet Employees

Posted on the 24 September 2012 by Onetest @onetest_hr

Understanding Your Quiet Employees


“Don’t just do something – Stand there!” ~ Zen Buddhist Saying

With little workplace experience, most of my perspective about what is good or bad behaviour as an employee is learned from anecdotes and feedback from my placement supervisors and the few temporary positions I have held during my university holidays. One of the most obvious behaviour I have become aware of displaying is that I spend a lot of time in “silence”, especially during meetings. It was never portrayed as anything “bad” but I often hear from supervisors that I am “very quiet”.

Thinking back on timed assessment centre group activities and the criteria used, one of the most popular competencies we include is “Teamwork”. Part of this involves “active participation”, “shows enthusiasm” etc. What does this imply about desired employee behaviour? Understandably, there is a limit to the assessor’s ability to identify covert attitudes objectively and hence we have to rely on overt behaviour but are we unconsciously communicating that people who can interact with strangers within a short amount of time and who outwardly express an inclination towards teamwork are most desirable? What about the quieter personalities who prefer sitting back, observing, taking in as much as they can before stepping in? They might have the ability to act as required but not necessarily PREFER to.

Realising that it made me appear slow, unenthusiastic, unmotivated and distant (all “undesirable” employee characteristics), this “quietness” contributed to my lack of confidence and I felt a constant pressure to make a verbal contribution. More of my attention became focused on my anxiety than actually processing the topics of discussion and I felt like I was not as effective at my job as I could be. Nevertheless, with encouraging superiors, I began to recognise and understand the value of this behavioural preference.

Some individuals prefer to voice out their thoughts the moment it comes to mind, bounce them off others and improve their ideas as they go. I just prefer to mull on them, assess the environment and ensure that I have all the facts I need to feel comfortable before expressing aloud my opinions. This does not mean that I am unenthusiastic, unmotivated or distant. It is just my method of giving myself the head space to devise a contribution I am confident is helpful and useful to the team. It could be from a completely  different perspective from the more outspoken individual or it could be similar but expressed differently, with certain areas that others might have left out. Ultimately, we need to recognise that every individual works differently. In my case, information is critical to every decision. I need a certain amount and level of detail before I feel comfortable coming to a conclusion on something. The act of silent observation gives me this opportunity.

Research has shown that the act of silent observation is a long established and extremely valuable exercise for parenthood, as it allows parents to fully understand and better provide for their children. Like a developing child, the workplace environment is, to me, dynamic, spontaneous and has a personality (company culture) of its own. It might be the case that by purely observing before doing anything, we are forcing ourselves to become more alert to various types of indications we would have otherwise missed. Some of us just thrive on this amount of information. Who is involved? How are they each involved? How do they communicate? What is their body language saying?

Following observation, reflection is then necessary for consolidation and attributing meaning to what is observed. For instance, if you have just started a new job, after observing the way your team communicates with one another, reflecting about what that means and how you might integrate with team discussions could be beneficial and smooth your transition into the environment.  Everybody does it unconsciously at some point. Some just do it more.

While quick, accurate decisions and actions are prized in the workplace today, I think it is important not to forget quietness does not necessarily imply a lack of ability or will to contribute. The individual  may just be in the process of brewing an idea from a different perspective that might be a viable alternative. We definitely need both behavioural profiles within our workplace because as we all know by now, it’s all about diversity in the workplace.


Forman, G., & Hall, E. (2005). Wondering with children: The importance of observation in early education. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 7(2).

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