Quiet Leaders, Chaotic Consequences

Article by , July 10, 2018

Quiet Leaders

People seek relief when confronted with obnoxious or ego-driven leaders. They long for a manager who’s quiet, thoughtful, reserved and capable of creating a peaceful culture.

This scenario seems wonderful, on the surface: a break from ongoing torture. But behind their deceptive façade, quiet leaders often present a world of uncertainties and unanticipated challenges. Accompanying the more obvious benefits are surprising detriments that can be as debilitating to the organization as those inflicted by their overbearing counterparts.

Too much of a good thing has served as a generic warning for generations, and it can hold especially true for the quiet leader. Quietness in leadership is better in some ways and worse in others.

Are You a Hands-Off Leader?

Quiet leaders are typically introverts, leading with as little emotional or relational input as possible. They’re uncomfortable with feelings, closeness or the mess of human conflict. Psychotherapist and business consultant Beatrice Chestnut, PhD, dubs them “knowledgeable observers” in The 9 Types of Leadership: Mastering the Art of People in the 21st Century Workplace (Post Hill Press, 2017). They prefer solitude over engagement, intellect over emotion and hard data over subjective input, she notes.

Quiet leaders need space, feeling safer at a distance from their people. They’re overly challenged by interpersonal struggles, strong emotions or typical workplace drama. They don’t aim for the spotlight, but rather efficiency and correctness. Disorganization sets them off.

Quiet leaders value data and analysis. They process and respond; they don’t react. They base their decisions on their own perspectives, formed after careful and sometimes painstaking assessments. They establish control through analysis and adherence to procedures and policies, maintaining their distance from difficult human issues. Self-sufficiency is a cherished trait.

As Dr. Chestnut points out, quiet leaders establish firm unspoken boundaries, careful to minimize emotional expressiveness, sharing of personal information or inquiring about their people’s lives. They inhabit a very intellectual and thought-provoking world, kept close to the vest.

The Ups and Downs of Quiet Leaders

Though a “knowledgeable observer” seems to defy leadership’s relational expectations, this management style benefits an organization in a number of ways. Quiet leaders:

  • Don’t subject employees to tempers, berating treatment or outward anger
  • Rarely invoke politics, favoritism or excuses in their decisions and policies
  • Are objective in their perspectives and choices, based on data and analysis
  • Are humble and thoughtful
  • Leave their people alone, giving them space

While this may seem like utopia to many, these seemingly positive traits can invite long-term consequences if practiced to the extreme. Quiet leaders:

  • Overlook project details, misbehavior and low performance
  • Limit engagement, unity and better ideas
  • Avoid feelings, relationships and strong emotions
  • Don’t network or build alliances
  • Avoid delegation
  • Struggle to engage, inspire and motivate workers
  • Experience analysis paralysis

Quiet leaders find fulfillment in their role as strategist, problem solver, vision caster or data cruncher. They must be thoroughly informed to perform to high standards, and strictly adhere to policies and procedures.

Fear of failure plagues most quiet leaders. Decisions are stressful unless all data and possibilities are calculated. Procrastination is a viable option.

These unfortunate attributes can put the quiet leader squarely at the center of severe organizational dysfunction and, ultimately, failure.

Dysfunctional Behavior

Knowledgeable observers often have a seemingly harmless appearance, so the downsides of their leadership style may take time to surface.

Dr. Chestnut emphasizes quiet leaders’ need to be alone. Employees won’t see them milling about, engaged in small talk or asking how the weekend went. They limit themselves to their office space and meeting rooms, when an appearance is required. An open-door policy is a rarity.

Quiet leaders are generally shy and uncomfortable in social settings. They enjoy technical or analytical conversations, most comfortably conducted remotely. Interpersonal issues, employee performance and salary assessments are frequently sidestepped.

Using their analytical expertise, quiet leaders take pleasure examining issues—sometimes to the nth degree. They refuse to rely on feelings or instincts and will request more data (even when unobtainable) and procrastinate.

Reluctant to seek others’ opinions or perspectives, quiet leaders try to become expert in a specific issue that relies on their singular assessment. Consequently, they avoid delegation, take on extra tasks and fail to engage, train and communicate expectations.

Each of these behavioral traits presents an awkward situation, resulting in some level of organizational difficulty. When combined, they lead to significant dysfunction. Without corrective measures, the damage often becomes irreparable.

Advice for Quiet Leaders

Those who understand the quiet personality can help leaders adopt more effective approaches and navigate the emotional and unpredictable nature of human behavior.

Quiet leaders must learn they don’t have the corner on analytical thinking, Dr. Chestnut asserts. With coaching and encouragement, they can begin to accept other perspectives and experiences. The next steps are collaborating with people and developing the courage to discuss ideas on their technical and cultural merits. (This may take a coworker’s prompting.)

Learning to expand the power of relationships and deal with people is crucial. People want someone to support and follow. They generally want to do great work and succeed. An effective coach teaches the quiet leader how to build trust, let go and ease into taking some risks.

Working for a Quiet Leader

Drawing quiet leaders out of their shells takes patience and understanding. The best approach is to be professional and straightforward, holding back emotional responses or subjective language. Quiet leaders need to know they can collaborate with low risk and enjoy the process with a sense of comfort and productivity.

  • Offer to help with tasks and ask how they prefer them to be done
  • Approach quiet leaders with requests for help or training
  • Don’t ambush them with spur-of-the-moment issues; rather, ask for an appointment and be sensitive to their need for structure and planning.

Quiet leaders lack the people skills that many consider necessary for effective leadership, but they nonetheless often find themselves in positions of authority. While they may seem like fish out of water in some respects, they can be coached and encouraged to expand their comfort zones, grow their trust and engage others.

Dr. Maynard Brusman

Consulting Psychologist & Executive Coach
Trusted Leadership Advisor

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