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The Power of Lurking

November 16, 2013
"odd one out" by davidmpacey via Flickr.com

“odd one out” by davidmpacey via Flickr.com

Harvard Business School conducts something called “The Subarctic Survival Exercise” every year. It tests team synergy. Five people are stranded in the subarctic Canadian wilderness with fifteen objects. Each person ranks the objects for their survival importance and then works with the team to come up with a single team ranking, the idea being that the team’s answer, when compared to an expert answer, should be better than that of any single one of its members. Sometimes it works out this way, but teams fail often enough to keep it challenging. A team fails when the team’s answer is worse than that of any of the individual member’s answers. This happens when the team listens to the loudest, quickest, most confident member instead of the wisest member. All hat, no cattle.

So why do we listen to the better talker? Because make no mistake, studies show that we do. Presentation skills and the ability to “sell ourselves” reliably correlates with perceptions of intelligence, knowledge, and competence. Sadly, they don’t reliably correlate with actual intelligence, knowledge, or competence. Fancy talkers aren’t necessarily incompetent, they just aren’t any more competent than the quiet person, the nerd, or the stutter. (For more information see Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain) So what’s a poor introvert to do?

Lurk. Lurk with confidence. Lurk with glee. Lurk like a pro, dear introverts (and extroverts, too!). It’s your superpower.

Let me explain. Those of us who are naturally quiet and reflective have a certain superpower. It’s not spoken about very much because we’re not naturally the most talkative group, but it lets us do amazing things. We can absorb, evaluate, integrate, synthesize, and capitalize on large amounts of information in a way that is different from our more extroverted siblings. Extroverts get their energy from others and they can become experts at analyzing and reacting to people and social situations. Introverts get their energy from inside, from the engines of our mind, so to speak, which work best without all those external distractions. When you can take that churning mind and apply it to creating the best solutions in a team setting, you get the best of both worlds – but only when the introvert in question has the confidence to trust in her unique superpower!

So let the extroverts talk! You need them to bounce ideas around, flesh out scenarios, debate and deliberate. Ask questions. Draw them out and they’ll love you for it. Listen carefully and reflectively. Interject when necessary to clarify or draw the conversation towards the areas that need to be considered. This is the lurking portion. As you lurk, you are gathering and evaluating information about situations, viewpoints, and solutions. You’re filling up your bank account with wisdom. Don’t feel bad about being quieter than others. You’re working just as hard and contributing in your own way.

But you can’t just lurk! At some point you have to cash out, but when you do so you can do it with confidence in your superpower. You have deliberated carefully. You’ve listened and probably understood everyone’s viewpoint better than anyone else at the table. You haven’t jumped to conclusions and you’ve worked hard to overcome assumptions. You’re more concerned with the good of the group than a personal ego-boost. Have faith in that! Let that give you strength and confidence. You don’t have a speak loudly, but you do have to speak.

When you speak, start by reflecting what you’ve heard. You probably have some good insights into what everyone has been talking about for the last hour, so don’t be afraid to reframe the matter in a helpful way. Once you’ve reflected and reframed, people will be listening to you, and probably thinking “Wow, she really gets it!” Then you can propose one or more solutions, highlighting the contributions and desires of each team member along the way. That would work for Phillip but no for Lee, so we might consider doing it this way instead. Maria needs this, so it would work for her, too. Joe was right to point that out, so maybe he can help us with this. Using this kind reflecting, reframing, acknowledging, inclusive, solution proposal will help bring people at the table together.

“But what if I don’t have a solution?!” you might be wondering. That’s okay, too. This where you trust in your teammates. Just reflecting the problem carefully and succinctly may help them come to the insight they needed to find the solution themselves. More likely, however, they have already proposed a solution (or several) at some point in the discussion. You’re just picking it up, dusting it off, and presenting it in light of everything that’s been discussed, without all the ego attachment weighing it down. This is why its so important to acknowledge the contributions of others. If you don’t enjoy the spotlight, it also keeps it on them, not you. And it gives them ownership of the solution and the energy and authority to implement their idea so you don’t have to worry about getting saddled with all the work.

This is the method I use. I’m an introvert, but I’m adaptively extroverted. This means I can perform a mean small talk or give a smooth presentation, but they aren’t my favorite things. I like working in small groups, not with big crowds. Over time, I’ve become adept at organizing small groups, keeping them on task, and capitalizing on shared wisdom. I do that by lurking. It works. It has helped me gain the respect of my colleagues, advance in my institution, do the best work possible both collectively and individually, and capitalize on my strengths, rather than trying to be something I’m not (like an actual extrovert!).

Finally, I believe this method of teamwork is in keeping with what the Buddha taught about Right Speech. It means listening more than I talk, having compassion for others, recognizing their wisdom, and speaking only when I have something valuable to contribute. This method, although it sounds like a business tactic, is largely a product of my religious practice. I started out lurking because I was trying to be a “good Buddhist.” I continued because I saw that it was actually working in a practical sense, benefiting others as much as myself. I offer it now to you in hope that it might benefit you in your work and your lives, especially if you are an introvert like me, but also for all the extroverts out there, too. Happy lurking!

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