“You need to speak up.”
“You have to be more visible.”
If you’re an introvert, you might have heard these two bits of feedback before. And if you’re a high performer, they can be especially irksome. Speaking up just isn’t something you do. But be that as it may, failing to make your voice heard at pivotal moments might be hurting your career.
Most introverts tend to have good reasons–whether or not they consciously understand what they are–for holding their tongues during major presentations, meetings, and other situations where weighing in would be helpful. In those cases, it first helps to figure out which of your assumptions are preventing you from contributing to the discussion. Here are three of the most common, and how to overcome them.
The good intention: If you’re invited for only the first or second time to a senior-level meeting, chances are you’re one of the more junior employees in the room. Your natural tendency might be to defer to those more senior to you and soak in the conversation. Especially if you’re naturally introverted, it may not feel like it’s your place to talk. This deferential inclination can be especially strong in organizations with strong hierarchies.
The unintended impact: Your deference causes you to become invisible in the meeting. When no one knows you, they don’t know what you can do. That means you aren’t as likely to be considered when it comes time for a promotion. After you reach a certain level, the number of senior executives who know you and have a good impression of you will directly correlate with your career success.
The practical fix: Prepare to say something at the meeting. One senior executive shared with me that for every meeting he goes to, he’ll ask the person who invited him the following questions: Who’s going to be there, why has he been invited, and what will we be discussing? He then takes time to prepare how he’ll contribute to the conversation.
Understand that you can share your point of view and still be respectful. As long as you can contribute something substantive without overstepping your bounds or reaching beyond your knowledge base, you’ll be fine. For every meeting, try to say at least one thing–you can ask a question, play back what you’ve heard, or comment on what’s being said.
The good intention: Everything that needs to be said has already been shared. You hate it when others waste time saying nothing in meetings, so you refrain from talking just for the sake of talking. If you’re a good listener and usually let others speak first, or if you’re on a team with a few dominant personalities, you’ll most likely fall into this category.
The unintended impact: Imagine seeing yourself from a newcomer’s perspective. Even if you have the best ideas, someone who doesn’t know you will reasonably assume you don’t have any ideas as long as you don’t share them. Worse, you might be seen as someone who doesn’t care. Neither one of these misperceptions will help you in your career, and it’s up to you to set them straight.
The practical fix: Speak up earlier. If you wait until the end of the meeting, chances are someone else will already have shared your idea. Make it your goal to be one of the first two people to say something. For guidance, you might want to observe those who speak up first, and note what they say and how they say it.
The good intention: You don’t want to appear incompetent in front of people who will judge you and have a say in your career. If you’re with a client, you might not want to say something to jeopardize the deal or damage the relationship. Why not let your more senior and experienced colleagues handle it? Isn’t that why they’re there in the first place?
The unintended impact: Your client sees you as the scribe or assistant, and you never build the working relationship you need to get to the next level. For internal meetings, your boss thinks you don’t have a mind of your own and sees you more of an order-taker than an influencer.
The practical fix: Before the meeting, ask your more senior colleagues what they want you to cover and how they want you to participate. That can help you decide when you to jump in during the meeting. You might also ask your coworkers to help pull you into the conversation for certain topics.
During the meeting, for every question that’s asked, come up with an answer in your head and compare it to what your more senior colleagues are saying. As your answers begin to align with what you hear, you’ll gain the confidence to speak up knowing your responses will be on the right track.
Being invited to a senior-level meeting or a high-stakes pitch are rare windows of opportunity to showcase your talents. Don’t waste it. Do your homework in advance, and be clear on the value you can add to the conversation. When you do share your views, make sure it’s concise, articulate, and focused on the topic at hand. There’s nothing more annoying than to hear someone trying to impress others or prove how smart or how hardworking they are.
But it’s a delicate balance. If you don’t talk, no one will know who you are; if you talk too much, people begin to wonder, “Who do you think you are?”
Finally, get feedback after a meeting wraps up. If your manager or mentor will be there, mention beforehand that you’re working on speaking up more and ask for some specific suggestions from them. They’ll let you know if you need to speak up even more, or if you’re going overboard.
Speaking up in key business situations sometimes poses a risk few introverts are all that inclined to make. But for the sake of your career, it’s almost alway worth the wager.
Robert Chen is an executive coach who uses his science, business, and cross-cultural background to help technical leaders communicate with more impact and build better working relationships. He works at Exec|Comm, a global communication skills consultancy, in New York City.