“Untold” opinions

Posted by jlubans on November 18, 2014

Caption: The singular mindset. (Maine photo by JL.)

Andrew Hill, writing in the Financial Times,
reveals that a nondescript bank clerk - Eric Roberts - was a double agent during WWII, “controlling and neutralising hundreds of Nazi sympathisers and ‘fifth columnists’ in Britain”. What sets Mr. Hill to thinking is an archived note from one of this master spy’s bank supervisors questioning the rationale behind the request for him to help in the war effort: “What we would like to know here is what are the particular and especial qualifications of Mr. Roberts – which we have not been able to perceive – for some particular work of national military importance?” (Emphasis added.)
This supervisor’s inability to recognize talent when it was front and center sets Andrew Hill wondering how many other just plain workers – maybe more of the quiet, unassuming kind than of the extroverted – are passed over, go unrecognized and are under-used by the organization.
In my personal career, I know of at least two bosses – neither of whom I worked for – that would make noises akin to Robert’s boss, undercutting and mean-spirited. One was a director of a library in an elite private institution and the other was a director in a large public university. No, their inability to recognize talent was not just a blind spot; rather, it was something more calculated. Both resented someone’s being singled out for positive recognition and could not get past their personal envy. You can imagine the type of staff these two directors accumulated in their respective organizations. Probably not creative, independent, critical thinkers!
Hill suggests that there may well be talent, like the “genius spy”, in our organizations that simply does not fit neatly into the "paradigm” (excuse me) we think separates the best people from the crowd. “(D)etecting those who are hiding in plain view” is made all the more difficult by our preconceptions and intolerances.

I have written more than once about the quiet team member; the one who is not saying much. Do you invite them in to the discussion or ignore them? For that matter, do you even assign them to a team project since they are not loquacious and garrulous? I see this play out regularly when I form classroom teams and give them 10 minutes to come up with a solution to some problem. Often the quiet people are ignored and while the team products are OK, they could well have been better had the group made an effort to make sure everyone had a say, however briefly.
I encourage the quiet people to speak up, to exercise their voices. A few actually do and all - including the quiet person - are amazed at just how good his/her ideas are. Others reflect – remember these are quiet thinkers - and realize they indeed have something to offer, but that without speaking up, their ideas will go nowhere. One such student who received a grade of 9 on a scale of 10, made this observation when I asked her what she needed to develop to be more effective in a group:
“I would like to be more open, to communicate with others (more freely). Don’t be a shy person. Sometimes I noticed my views and opinion were right, but I haven’t announced it, (so) no one knew about it.”
Another student in this same class saw clearly the perils of not speaking up:
“I would like to develop my own follower qualities, e.g. my ability to speak my mind, express my ideas. Because “untold” opinions can be negative to a group’s work.”
(N. B. I have kept the language as written by the students; please remember these are students for whom English is a second or third language.)

Going back to Robert’s snarky boss, Andrew Hill argues that it is important for leaders to recognize talent. If someone does not measure up to your yardstick of corporate qualities, you may want to ask yourself why? In groups you lead, do you invite in the quiet person or do you figure they must not have anything to say – why else would they be quiet! Or do you invite them in, e.g. “I notice you’ve been thinking quietly, what should we do?” Or, “OK, we’ve talked about this and I’ve heard from most of you. I want to hear what those who have not spoken think, so don’t be shy about telling me what’s right, what’s wrong. If you think we’re barking up the wrong tree, let me know.” And then wait.
I like to tell the story – it appears in Leading from the Middle
of how during an outdoor leadership challenge we muted the two domineering MBA students who really believed they knew best. But, try as they might, their ideas, were not getting the job done, nor was anyone else speaking up. We decided to see what would happen if we silenced these two and asked the others to work out the problem – you might not get away with doing that in the workplace, but in a “harmless” adventure activity, it’s acceptable.
How did it work out? The quietest person came up with the solution. All she needed was some space and encouragement in which to offer ideas. Did the two domineering personalities change? Probably not, but the quiet participants certainly took home a memorable lesson.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week:
Uniwersytet Mikolaja Kopernika Library
Torun, Poland

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

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