“I just sat in the room in awe. All these senior writers, and here I was. I did not speak because I had not found my voice.”
That statement was from Mitchell Hurwitz, the creator of Arrested Development, speaking about his first big break into the TV business as a writer. He had joined the TV series The Golden Girls, working with a writing team of grizzled veterans. It was his first big break into comedy writing.
I was intrigued by his quote. Everyone struggles to find that voice where we speak from a platform of knowledge and authority. How many times have you sat in a meeting and just did not feel comfortable putting your two cents into the discussion? But over a period of time we usually feel that, yes, we do have something to say.
Keeping quiet and assessing the dynamics
But on the other hand, we have always observed the SGITR syndrome, which translates into the Smartest Guy (or Gal) In The Room syndrome. At every opportunity, a person infected with this will not let pass the chance to speak, and all-too-often, it is out of turn.
I have a friend who is a member of Mensa, the group with high IQ’s. He never misses an opportunity to somehow bring up his membership. Sadly, he does not see the problem with this.
But as Mr. Hurwitz states, he kept quiet during the first meeting at his new employer. He said that he studied the dynamics of the room to get a sense of the players there. He wanted to see the interactions and how they all worked together. To him, this was a strong learning experience and basically set him on the path of success.
So listen, watch and study the dynamics of the room if you are a new addition. If you do not know or have a feel for the dynamics, please keep your mouth shut. Use this new time to get a sense of who the players are before you find your voice.
You also need to look for the right moment to speak up, not just to fill space with words, but the actual moment where the discussion has entered your area of expertise. Use that moment to let your voice come through. By strategically looking for the right moment, you will slowly gain the respect of being a seasoned contributor and not just the showboat that is always looking to throw their 2 cents into the conversation.
Imitators not allowed
In order to add lasting, meaningful value, we must – eventually – find our own voice. Not an imitation voice where we try and emulate someone else, but a voice of our own. When we go the imitation route, it becomes apparent pretty quickly.
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Power is not analogous with volume, masculinity, or intimidation, but through a voice that is heard and heeded. However this frequently gets lost when we get so tightly focused on trying to prove that we have arrived. That arrival does not have to be announced; it is an aura that will fit you like a tailored suit.
Remember when we were in school and the teacher would ask a question, and it was the same one or two kids whose hands always shot up? They knew it and they took great glee in showing everyone how smart they were. The rest of us in the room grew to despise them not for being smart, but for always trying to show off.
People in an organization put on a similar demeanor in the workplace, and this type of behavior does not bode well for building a great team environment. As a matter of fact, it is a team killer.
So, the next time you get that new job or join a cross-functional team, remember that the voice has to find you. Wait till you develop it and then start the contribution.
Your new teammates will thank you — as well as your organization.