“It’s oh so quiet…”

Jessica Wirawan, Manager at PwC and Asia Society Gen A member on volume as a bad indicator of leadership potential

By Jessica Wirawan
Manager at PwC (Diversity & Inclusion) - Cultural D&I Program Lead, Asia Society Gen A Network member

As a kid, my report cards described me as "shy" or "hard-working, but needs to participate more". In a corporate context, the feedback has shifted to "lacks assertiveness", or "needs more confidence". The terms vary, but the sentiment remains - that ‘being quiet’ is a flaw that needs to be fixed. The research in the Blueprint publication tells us that the changing ‘face’ of Australia is yet to be reflected in the face of Australia’s leadership and when we look to diagnose this issue, a common conclusion (particularly for individuals of an Asian cultural background), is that 'they’re just too quiet’ and thus lacking leadership potential (but excellent doctors or accountants).

‘Quiet’ is often described as a personality. ‘Too quiet’ is used to justify holding back talent from that next step. While ‘too loud’ may be articulated as ‘confident’ or ‘has an opinion’. To me, quiet is not a personality, but a state. Quiet is contextual.

As cultural diversity often lives in the land of food and festivities, have a think back to your last visit to a Chinese restaurant (or Korean BBQ, Japanese Karaoke Bar, Vietnamese cafe, etc). Was it quiet? Filled with smiling, detail-oriented, mild-mannered, softly-spoken individuals?

Or was it loud - dynamic, vibrant, in-your-face and maybe even a little aggressive? (to be read as: 'bursting with leadership material'?)

So what causes this metamorphosis? There may be a number of different influences from cultural to personality or environmental and if we apply this to a corporate context, which of these factors do we have the power to influence, to help ensure all our talent are given a voice? In the pursuit of talent, the focus is often external recruitment, but have we exhausted the untapped potential in our walls - the less vocal, less visible and as a result, less valued? If we reflect on the current framework used to identify and support ‘top talent’, what kinds of behaviours and skills are rewarded, and what impact might this have on our talent pipeline? If we embed a ‘speak up, or step aside’ mantra, what critical insights, ideas and opportunities for growth might we be missing out on?

So, how do we begin to crack the cone of silence?

Simple as it sounds, for me, it all comes back to curiosity. Genuine curiosity to invest time in understanding an individual, their unique strengths and how to leverage and build on these. Curiosity to ask questions - which will then provide you the wisdom and empathy you need to ask the right questions. Leaders often approach asking for feedback with a 'tick the box' mentality, and the resulting silence is all too often accepted as indifference or agreement. To then unlock the answers, consider have you:

  • Invested the time to establish a trusted relationship?
  • Created the right (and psychologically safe) environment (as tailored to the individual) for an open conversation, e.g. 1on1 vs. large group; phone vs in person; peer vs senior; written vs verbal; anonymous vs identifiable?
  • Openly shared your own perspectives and experiences, with authenticity and vulnerability?
  • Demonstrated that sharing ideas and honest feedback will actually result in positive action rather than inaction, or worse, negative career consequences?
  • Given team members appropriate credit and recognition for value-adding ideas?

It’s not about tip-toeing around personalities, but about each of us as leaders (by title or otherwise), looking to understand and value each of our people and identifying how we can help them to step up - to be their best selves and their whole selves. Equally, as leaders start to show curiosity, don’t let it go to waste – share a perspective, opinion or idea in a way that feels authentic to you. Make a conscious effort to make every meeting and interaction count. The results might surprise you.

Because volume is not an indicator of potential.

Author: Jessica Wirawan, Chartered Accountant & Manager, Diversity and Inclusion, PwC

Jessica is the Program Lead for cultural diversity and inclusion in the PwC Diversity & Inclusion team. With 6 years' experience at PwC, she began her career as a graduate in Assurance, starting in Risk Assurance and working in the Strategy & Markets team prior to joining the D&I team this year. She is a member of Asia Society Gen A Network.