Listening to the Quiet Ones

Can you realize the full potential in a group if members don’t choose to openly share their thoughts? The answer is no. If team members are unwilling to speak their mind for any reason, good leaders must find a way to convince members to share their ideas in a way that works for them. I was reminded of this challenge recently when I had the opportunity to read Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain. The book makes a compelling case for the increased innovation and productivity available to organizations when firms find ways to ensure contribution from everyone, including introverts.

The book brought me back to my arrival at AT&T in 1995 as the first outsider in 100 years recruited to lead a unit of “long lines” as a corporate officer. At the time, the $3B organization included 2,000 professionals and was under-performing in a number of areas. On arriving, my initial goal was to set up a series of town hall meetings to listen to employee thoughts, questions, and suggestions. When I did not get the level of interaction I had hoped, I asked a peer if she had any guidance. She told me to review the Employee Satisfaction Survey results.

The survey results were alarming. One particular question told me all I needed to know. The specific questions asked: Do you think it is safe to say what you think at AT&T? The prior year results for our unit showed that only 39% said yes. I learned that results across AT&T were similar for that particular question. Translation: on average, 6 out of 10 people would not tell you the full truth.

Whether these results were due to introversion or lack of trust, the simple truth was that I needed to confront this issue straight on if we were going to turn around performance. I needed to find a way for people to express their feelings and thoughts in a safe way.

I decided to get creative to set up a safe way to get employee input. Specifically, I actually signed a contract with our major competitor MCI for a toll-free 1-800-SAFE-2-SAY number that my employees could call at any time. MCI would transcribe employee comments and send me a written weekly report. Nobody’s voice could be recognized. My employees were amazed; while I am sure some in upper management were flabbergasted.

On my regular all-associates conference calls I would regularly pull from the prior week’s MCI report the “toughest” questions and answer them openly and honestly. At first people were surprised that no comment or question was over the line. Over time, more and more employees felt comfortable asking tougher questions in open forums. I am sure that many talented introverts continued to use this tool to communicate.

We also made progress on the safe to say question on the Employee Satisfaction Survey, becoming one of the only units to break the 50% mark. Perhaps not surprisingly, overall employee satisfaction hit record levels and customer satisfaction levels did the same. Our revenue growth rate TRIPLED from 5 to 15% and we grew to $5B over three years.

Question: What are you doing to ensure you are “hearing” from the quiet members of your team?

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[One Response]

  1. S. Renee | |

    Great article. Excellent point. As a presenter (and leader of volunteers) I’ve noticed that there are a few people who monopolize the discussion. Although I encourage more participation I don’t always get to the ones who sit and watch the process. Sometimes this is due to the lack of time or just not being totally present enough to call on them. Clearly, missing some profound insights. Thank you.