When men and women gather for a work meeting a remarkable ritual often unfolds. Perhaps because the boardroom table was historically the domain of men, an ancient, almost tribal dynamic takes hold. The men jostle and posture. They speak freely and unprompted. They interrupt each other, often talking over one another, talking over the woman. I have been that woman. I’ve been the one who has offered up an idea, only to have it drowned out and then hear it repeated almost word for word a minute later by, say, John. This then cues Richard to say, “John makes an excellent point!” And while I seethe in silence, the men move into mid-ritual, reinforcing and reframing each other’s views. Like a game, they toss a ball of ideas around the table, and flex their personal capital.
Women are still newcomers to this game. And while we can be terrific at reading a room, we don’t always read it well in such moments. We’re too stumped by being talked over, or having our idea hijacked, to join in. Yet it’s in those moments, like it or not, that you have to get over yourself and jump in. Bringing an idea to the table doesn’t mean you “own” it. The team owns it, adds to it, debates it, fleshes it out. If you have a great idea, set it free; if you hear a good idea, back it up and bring additional value to it. The meeting table isn’t a place to go it alone, but a place where you anchor yourself as part of a team.
Yet it isn’t easy, and we women don’t get over ourselves enough. We fall back on another traditional pattern, reminiscent of the classroom, when you put your hand up and waited to be called upon (reinforced by what you’ve seen happen to the woman who speaks first). And while you wait, you formulate precisely what you want to say, only to find that when it’s your “turn,” you have missed the moment or someone else already has made the point. Fretting over saying just the right thing and fearing saying the wrong thing, women can end up saying nothing at all.
I know this particular insecurity intimately. Having so often been the newbie, the only woman and/or the youngest exec at the table, I have felt so out of place it robbed me of my voice. I was shy, too careful about what I’d say, or how I’d say it. More than once, my bosses told me during performance reviews that they felt that I knew more than I was contributing.
Women do not have a lock on being shy. Men suffer too. Strangely, given my chosen career, I have no desire to be at a podium. I take a deep breath before presenting my ideas and making jokes in front of large crowds of people. But it’s my job. And if I’m going to do my job well, I have to pull myself together and contribute.
In the workplace, I’ve been able to overcome shyness by defining it for what it is—a kind of self-indulgence. To be shy or too quiet in work situations means you hide who you are, and, more significantly, hide what you think and what you know. By not speaking up, you don’t just deprive yourself of a voice at the table, you also abdicate contributing to the group. And that means you’re actually not doing your job. After all, if you’ve been asked to the table in the first place, your colleagues and your bosses believe you have something valuable to contribute. The invitation is to participate and by taking that seat, you have accepted. When people don’t share to their full potential, the group loses out—particularly in these times. As the digital age prompts widespread downsizing, every voice matters. It’s not just the views of the leader that are critical, but those of every member of the team. The cards you keep close to the vest might well be the answer to a problem, or a map of the best way forward.