What can we do about quiet members?

Today, I met with a WIT Leader who had a problem with – quiet members.

Your team may have them.  You may have just one or two, sometimes even three, but if everybody in your team is quiet, then just too bad – I think you may be the problem.  I will discuss the leader’s personal problem in another post. 

Today I want to discuss the problems if you have one or a few quiet members.    

Why are they sitting so far away?

I am refering to the quiet ones during meetings.  The unresponsive, un-answering, ever cautious, ever starry look and non-committal.  They sit on the far side of the table, as far away from everybody as possible.  Sometimes, as near to the door as possible.  One WIT leader told me, he called them the ‘frozen fish’.  They are cold, hard and slimy.

The frozen fish

Right in front, at the white board, our dear old leader is trying his best to encourage them to give ideas.  The leader’s friendly gestures and sincere comments gets dissolve into their dead silent stares.  The silence is intended to make those who speak up feel weird.  A once positive member who later joined the ‘quiet evolution’ told me that the leader is the star in a freak show.  The only ones enjoying his contribution were people outside. The rest of the members are serious silencers.  


Saps away your life.

One WIT Leader shared with me how all the silence was sapping his soul of life.  When he was excited, he gets louder, the quiet ones react by keeping even quieter, not even smiling.  Then many started to pull their hand below the table.


“Can you imagine? They thought I was a weirdo.  Mind you, their non-commitment behaviours only happens inside the WITs meeting room!  Once outside, they are actively gossiping and pouring out to everybody what their leader (which is I, of course) haven’t completed, the mistakes the team made, the silliness of some ideas which was ‘obviously flawed’ from the start. etc etc.” said the frustrated WIT leader.

Quiet WITS members typically fall into a two types.

1.   Quiet and benign  –  Their quietness are their way of getting away from work.  The Chinese saying: “Speak less, wrong less.  Don’t speak, won’t be wrong.  (xao shoa, xao chor, bu shoa, bu chor)”.  They are reducing their commitment so that they will have little or better yet, no responsibilities.  There is nothing to win, anyway.  Many new WIT teams have these type of quiet members.

See no evil, Speak no evil, Hear no evil

2.   Quiet and malicious –  These are the ones who are waiting out to get someone in the team and sometimes it may even be the team leader!  There is deep bitterness hidden beneath, waiting to manifest itself in some way, destructively.  They don’t want any change. Anything different is going to deprive them of a benefit they are enjoying!  They blame WITS – ‘because of WITS they will lose something’. Someone told them that ‘WIT’ stands for “wasting important time”.  They position themselves in attack readiness.  If they sense that they are losing something off they go for the kill.  They are like the black panther in the dark waiting for the prey. The least they want from WIT is to get even! These type had come a long way.  They became such over years of neglect by their WIT leaders.  Sometimes the previous WIT leader had done this dis-service to you!

What can I do?

Based on my conversations and feedback from WIT leaders with this problem, I would like to suggest five simple steps you can use to keep yourself sane.  However, the simple steps are vitamins not antibiotics.  It has to be administered over and over again for some time for the benefits to show.  Believe it or not, both types can be given the same vitamins – treat the silent ones in exactly the same way.  The key to do it is to reach their inner soul – Talk to them one-on-one. 

Step 1.   Invite.  Casually call them in.  Do not get another person to call him.  Do it yourself.  This should be a one-on-one discussion.  Do not allow a second person to come in, it conveys to them that it is indeed a special time.  If you have another person, the quiet person will play the waiting game.


Invite them for a one-on-one meeting.

Step 2.   Opening.   Next, you lead the discussion.  Once together, speak of somethings else beside their silence at the meeting.  Tell them about something that you are busy with (as long as it is not a confidential topic), and invite them to give you some suggestions.   For example, knowing that he also uses the same copier down the corridor, so you may draw him to your problem, “Jimmy, you know, I have a problem with the printer, the paper gets stuck whenever I print more than 10 pages.  It seems that the machine is not able to take this kind of load.  You know, I take care to fit rim of the paper into the feeder.  But it still happen. Do you get that kind of problem?” Then continue to discuss what can be done – change the machine, service the machine, how, who etc.

Step 3.   Involvement.   Next go to specific action to involve the candidate.  Then you go on to non-specific issues like, “You know our WITS project is slightly behind time, and we need someone to interview line G.  Would you be interested to help out this Wednesday? All you need to do is … What do you think of helping out there?”

Small talk goes a long way.

Step 4.   Probe.   This next part you must deal with it most carefully.  This it the trickiest part. You need to tell them that you notice that they are extremely quiet during the WITS meetings.  Ask if they are enjoying the sessions, “Do you enjoy attending the WIT meeting we had last week?”  Now the trick is to be specific.  You are suggesting that you only realise it last week and you are concerned. 

You can do something here.

Do not say, “You have been very quiet for several WITS meetings,”  This statement tells them you are frustrated and the obvious reaction is denial – which is not something you want.  Denial will lead to defense and then your quite person will shrink into a defensive shell!

Step 5.   Leave Them.   You are going to leave them to make a change.  It is not something you will see at the end of this one-on-one conversation.  Change may happen a few days, a week or so, or even after the next two meetings.  This is where your patience come in.  The next time you meet, do not talk about their quietness.  Just ask for the progress.  Just assume that they are responsibly carrying out and in the event that you detect slack, say that you notice ‘slowness’ and say that you don’t understand why it happened.  Whenever they did something reasonably well tell them that you recognise their effort, ‘ Jimmy I am please to see that ….’  Show them that you noticed their initial results. 

Repeat cycle as many times as you want, changing the topic of opening and involvement everytime. In normal cases, the quiet person will take about three cycles before you gain the trust and response.  If yours is the frozen fish, it may take a few more thawings. 

Do come back for a visit sometime!
Good Luck.

Please feedback to me on your experiences and how you deal with quiet people in your WIT Team. 




6 Responses to What can we do about quiet members?

  1. inspiredminds says:

    I have been labeled ” the frozen fish” many a time. Anti-social even. But those that know me and work with me know that is not the real me. Not everyone can just leave their problems at the door, or turn an inner switch and go to their happy place. Sometimes you don’t communicate because you have done so and nothing was done. Many reasons abound. Don’t always just think they don’t want to be there, or don’t care about the job or what is being talked about. Just my 2cents.

  2. 3pillarsofwits says:

    Yes, it is really true that it is fifty percent the Leader’s weakness that many members end up frozen fishes. I saw this in happening in many teams. One of my work is to help them see their own weaknesses through workshops.

    The above five steps refer to the basic ‘opening move’ to get on once more with members who have been frozen fishes.

  3. obentoheroilbodurf says:

    eztvuwzqstthypjpwell, hi admin adn people nice forum indeed. how’s life? hope it’s introduce branch 😉

  4. Clarence U says:

    Hi Yew Heng, I stumbled across your blog while googling WITs. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    Some techniques I use for “quiet ones” include:
    1. Organise a non-work team event to kick off the project to help break the ice.
    2. Set a team ground rule that no ideas are stupid, and demonstrate this by getting everyone one to come ups with silly/funny/creative ideas for a non-work related example.
    3. Often, a problem faced during brainstorm sessions is that the quiet person is afraid to speak up in front of others or just don’t get a chance because other team member(s) monopolise the talking. This can be overcomed by getting the team to write down ideas on post-it notes instead of verbalising them during brainstrom sesssions.
    4. Ask questions- “John, what do you think of Jane’s idea?”


    • 3pillarsofwits says:

      You can also visit my other wordpress blog – problemsolvingfire. There are some real problem solving projects there

  5. Random T. says:

    The topic is quite trendy in the net right now. What do you pay the most attention to while choosing what to write about?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: