Silence and Isolation: Two Dastardly Behaviors That Hold People Back

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Last weekend I attended a very pleasant dessert party that had a theme based on the Sheryl Sandberg book Lean In. (If you’ve not heard of it, please do look it up and become familiar with this cultural discussion regarding women in the workplace.) The party was attended by eight well-educated career women at varying levels of the corporate hierarchy.

I can’t do the discussion or the book justice by trying to present my take, but I can tell you two words that have come to the forefront of my mind since that evening, Silence and Isolation.
This isn’t about women in the workplace. It’s about silence and isolation. These are two very poisonous behaviors that keep us, humans, from thriving. For the sake of this article, I’ll focus on how it impacts us in the workplace.

Silence. You’ve heard the phrase, Silence is Deadly. Oh, so true. When we are silent in the office, in the meeting, in the performance review, something else is going on. Are we hiding? Are we afraid of something? Do we want to “fly under the radar”?

Certainly, there is a time, place and methodology to speaking up. If we don’t discuss the issue, it’s as if we don’t exist. We’re ghosts. We are not contributing to the betterment of our company, our peers or, more importantly, ourselves. We do have contributions and value. Our peers can’t see it. Our supervisors don’t know we saved the company thousands by recognizing something duplicate in the budget. We’re told it is rude or bad form to toot our own horn. That is a fallacy perpetuated by people that have no problem tooting their own horn. It’s just how we toot the horn that matters, and it does matter that we toot the horn!

I know what it’s like to be silent, afraid that you’ll say or do the wrong thing. In my career, I have worked in two different and incredibly challenging positions that were steeped in political cow pies and faced the challenge of being a team player vs taking care of me. You know what happened, don’t you? I put the team player hat on, and off I went. I never spoke up. The issue wasn’t that I didn’t want to take on additional tasks; the issue was that I wasn’t confident and mature enough to directly address the issue with the supervisor. I struggled with what was the right thing to do. Guess what? We’ll never know what the right thing to do is until we do something.
My other tactic was to isolate. Not just to be quiet, I hid my talents and certainly didn’t want to know about yours. Don’t ask for help or you’ll look stupid. Or, the flipside – “I got it… I don’t need input from anyone!” Or, have you ever heard a person utter the comment “I’ve been doing this for 13 years. There’s nothing new to learn, and certainly not from someone who just graduated from university!”

Engaging in a conversation, asking questions in person – asking a peer for their input or review on a project is vital. We all need a second set of eyes to look at our work. Obtaining the perspective of a coworker, even one who is a personality challenge, is vital to understanding them and understanding how others see our work. It could be the gateway to a brand new approach to a task or, better yet, lead to the discovery that a task is redundant and no longer required.

In March 2013, I stepped way out of my isolation zone. But, not out of my silent zone. I attended Executive Secretary LIVE in London and met so many absolutely amazing leaders in the administrative and leadership fields. I did not toot my own horn, I did not speak up. I did not share the joy of working in the administrative profession. I lost my voice. I was intimidated and a bit overwhelmed. I became a ghost. And a woman I respect tremendously, Sue France, called me on it. Why? What are you afraid of? Why would you think you are not as good as the rest of the speakers? she asked me. And I’m not sure I ever completely answered her. She knew me and I had just met her!

Now, I realize not everyone suffers from the same neurotic thought processes as mine and I’m certainly glad for that. I can name and recognize the challenges that sabotage my success. They are named: Silence and Isolation. My employer hired me because they knew I would be a contributor to the success of the company. They want my input and talents put to use for the company and for my own professional development. I am more engaged with my coworkers, I try to be a bit more social. I reach out more. I listen better. I am cautious but willing to share my input or thoughts on projects and tasks.

Today I can look back at my London experience this March, and the one I had at the dinner party when I thought to myself, how did I get invited to this gig? But you know what? I was invited for my input… The host wanted Kemetia’s story, Kemetia’s point of view. I did participate in the discussion – and I was neither less than nor better than any other person participating. Same goes for my workplace!

PS The best resource I’ve come across to address these two poisons is the TED Talk on vulnerability made famous by Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW. She studies vulnerability, courage, authenticity and shame”

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About Author

Kemetia MK Foley CAP, OM is a trainer, storyteller, and an experienced administrative professional embarking on new adventures in Maine with her husband, Brian. You can follow her on adminrenegade.com or via Twitter @OfficeRenegade.

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