Think back to your elementary school report cards. Does this sound familiar? "Linda needs to work on deciding when it is appropriate to speak." "Malcolm needs to contribute more in class."

In our culture, expressiveness plays a big role, and people are generally rewarded more for being chatterboxes than silent observers. Being a confident talker and a persuasive speaker can get you attention in meetings, get you the sale, and even get you elected. No one gets kudos for sitting quietly, or saying, "Let me think about it and I'll get back to you." Shy people may end up feeling overlooked, like mumbling Milton with his red stapler in the movie "Office Space;" his desk is moved further and further away until he is in the basement.

So the last time I was picking up reading materials in the airport, I was surprised and pleased to find both a new bestseller called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, plus an issue of Time magazine with the headline "The Upside of Being an Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)," by Bryan Smith. Suddenly, reserved people are having a moment in the sun! In her book, Cain battles the "omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight." In his article, Smith says, "It may be time for America to learn the forgotten rewards of sitting down and shutting up."

The louder people of the world tend to treat the quieter people of the world as if there is something wrong with them that they must surely want to fix. In my experience, however, quiet people are quite content to be as they are. When Judith Warner reviewed Quiet in The New York Times, she said: "My neighbor...once told me I was the most introverted person he'd ever met. I took this as a compliment. Who wouldn't?"

I can tell you who...corporate America and many organizations. I've been working in business for more than 30 years and in many ways there's still a gap between the value of expression and how it's perceived, just like in those elementary school report cards.

Our culture has over-simplified what it means to be quiet with what it means to be social (or non-social). So far I have put many different words into play in this article, including "quiet," "shy," "introverted," "gregarious," "bold," and "extroverted." It was deliberate—these terms are related, but they are not interchangeable, and they are not opposites.

A typical introvert is often expected to be reserved, solitary, and focused inward—but are there not introverts who are also entertainers? A typical extrovert is supposed to be people-loving, outgoing, and talkative—but can't a people-lover also be reserved? Some quiet people have very strong feelings, but they don't wear them on their sleeves. Those who enjoy solitude may in fact also be quite social. You don't have to be loud to be a good friend.

"Introvert" and "extrovert" lumps two different brain functions—thinking and behavior—into tidy, corporate-ready packages. Either boldness and people-power ("extroversion") or data-driven, quiet focus ("introversion").

People are far more complex than that, though, and really these characteristics are like apples and oranges. Your social thinking is an apple; it's your level of interest in being empathic, compassionate, caring, and supportive. Your expressiveness is an orange. It's a behavioral attribute anyone might notice about you, and is the amount of energy you bring to explaining to the outside world what is going on inside your head. 

This thinking and behavioral mix means a lot for you as a leader as well as your business. I think about a CEO I worked with whom I heard give a rousing speech to his employees. He did a fabulous job and seemed like an energetic, fascinating man. When he left the stage and sat next to me, I was thrilled. I love a good conversation, and I was sure we would have lots to talk about. It wasn't the case. He barely even spoke to me. Obviously he could be highly expressive, but—without a strong degree of social thinking in his makeup (which I'm aware of because I read his Emergenetics psychometric thinking and behavioral workplace profile)—he wasn't innately attuned to personal connection.

This CEO had worked his way to the top by using attributes including his behavioral expressiveness (prototypical "extroversion") and conceptual thinking, but not necessarily an empathic connection to others (social thinking).

It's often harder to realize how to be a quiet leader, so here's a few tips for you (and your employees), especially if any of the descriptors above sound like you:

  • Be aware that other people are not mind-readers
  • Remember to speak up
  • Maximize your influence in writing
  • If you need time to reflect, ask for it
  • Schedule your socializing for the mornings when you are fresh, and leave solitary tasks for the afternoon
  • Try business breakfasts instead of business lunches
  • Even though it will tire you out, dial up your expressiveness for phone calls, meetings, or teleconferencing

People will appreciate that your solutions are always thought out well. Your calm demeanor and ability to listen will serve you well if you can harness it. You don't have to change who you are in order to be a successful matter what your report cards used to say.