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Quietly Disadvantaged Talent

In conversations with quieter professionals, I hear examples of how they have felt disadvantaged in the workplace. It is surprisingly common place and yet often not seen as a problem. It is more often seen as the problem for the quieter professionals to fix and fit in. While I have the view that the individuals can develop to overcome some of the disadvantages, I also believe that organisations are wasting talent by not being aware of or addressing these disadvantages.


It is a bit like when a woman is told to speak up more when she is the only woman in the room and she regularly gets interrupted or her ideas are not heard. The woman can work on speaking with more conviction and clarity, but the group also needs to recognise their part in the dynamics and address them.


Unfortunately, those who are not affected by the disadvantage (ie. the privileged) are mostly unaware of the impact they have on the disadvantaged. Often this results in trying to fix people who don’t fit the mainstream/privileged (See Fixing people who don’t fit).


Below are a few workplace situations and environments where quieter professionals feel disadvantaged.


The dreaded offsite:

Many quieter professionals dread going to team offsites where they would be with a large group of people, many of whom they don’t know. One described an offsite full of group activities followed by a ‘get to know your colleagues speed dating’ process, then a drinks and dinner in the evening. Nothing is given to them to prepare, no time to think and reflect, no time to get away. The person felt put on the spot and unable to contribute their knowledge or expertise in a useful way. It was exhausting and the person described it as ‘traumatising’. When this person described this experience with a colleague, the person was told that it’s only once in a while and that she should get over it.


The brainstorm damage:

There’s a common belief that brainstorming is the best way to come up with creative ideas. For quieter professionals who are more creative thinking deeply and independently, brainstorming causes damage to their creativity. In larger groups, they are unable to contribute and be heard, even if they have good ideas.


More recent research shows that brainstorming is not the best tool for creative thinking, regardless of personality (See Why Most Brainstorming Sessions Are Useless and Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Work…). Many workplaces seem to ignore these findings, however, and continue to run brainstorming at offsites, workshops and meetings without adjusting for deep thinkers or to avoid group think.


The noisy team:

Another spoke about a project she was involved in with a few other colleagues who liked to talk. A lot. While the quieter person had useful knowledge, she was unable to contribute effectively as she was not given time to prepare and was often spoken over when she did try to contribute. She was also overwhelmed by the number of informal and formal meetings that took place. She felt she couldn’t make sufficient progress on the project without some independent thinking and working time. In the end she asked to be taken off the project as it was starting to affect her mental and physical well-being.


While she got support from her manager, she felt an unspoken, underlying judgement that she was not resilient enough.


The environmental overwhelm:

Some of the office environments do not cater for the need for quiet space and thinking time. Many open plan office advocates claim that the space facilitates collaboration. I have heard a senior leader speak about his team that the quiet, introverted team needed help to communicate with each other so the open space was a way to do this.


For some, the lack of quiet space results in overwhelm and productivity loss. More studies are showing the productivity cost of open space (See Open offices can lead to closed minds and Open-plan offices are as bad as you thought). If you are naturally more productive in quiet spaces, you can imagine the extra productivity loss!


Their under-valued strengths:

One person was told that she needed to be more resilient and manage her anxiety in group situations, especially if she were to progress in her career. While she acknowledged she has some work to do, she felt her strengths in empathy, intuition and developing deep connections with people one on one was not recognised.


There are many qualities which are under-valued in the workplace – they are often labelled as ‘soft’ or ‘intangible’. Or they are more to do with style rather than substance. (See Bias towards style over substance is keeping your real talent hidden)

These are only a few disadvantages I have discussed with quieter professionals recently and I know there are plenty more. What other quiet disadvantages have you experienced in the workplace?


Organisations that unlock this hidden talent will create a competitive advantage over those who don’t, in terms of talent retention, engagement, performance and stronger leadership pipelines. What is your organisation doing to minimise the disadvantages?

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