Quiet Leaders, Chaotic Consequences

  • 10 mins read

People seek relief when confronted with obnoxious or ego-driven leaders. They long for a manager who’s quiet, thoughtful, reserved and capable of creating a peaceful culture.

This scenario seems wonderful, on the surface: a break from ongoing torture. But behind their deceptive façade, quiet leaders often present a world of uncertainties and unanticipated challenges. Accompanying the more obvious benefits are surprising detriments that can be as debilitating to the organization as those inflicted by their overbearing counterparts.

Too much of a good thing has served as a generic warning for generations, and it can hold especially true for the quiet leader. Quietness in leadership is better in some ways and worse in others.

Are You a Hands-Off Leader?

Quiet leaders are typically introverts, leading with as little emotional or relational input as possible. They’re uncomfortable with feelings, closeness or the mess of human conflict. Psychotherapist and business consultant Beatrice Chestnut, PhD, dubs them “knowledgeable observers” in The 9 Types of Leadership: Mastering the Art of People in the 21st Century Workplace (Post Hill Press, 2017). They prefer solitude over engagement, intellect over emotion and hard data over subjective input, she notes.

Quiet leaders need space, feeling safer at a distance from their people. They’re overly challenged by interpersonal struggles, strong emotions or typical workplace drama. They don’t aim for the spotlight, but rather efficiency and correctness. Disorganization sets them off. They want the machinery to hum along with effective precision and little need for their direct intervention or correction. They try to align plans and people well enough for all aspects of business to take care of themselves.

Quiet leaders value data and analysis. They process and respond; they don’t react. They base their decisions on their own perspectives, formed after careful and sometimes painstaking assessments, to make the most beneficial choices. They establish control through careful analysis and adherence to procedures and policies, maintaining their distance from difficult human issues. Self-sufficiency is a cherished trait.

As Dr. Chestnut points out, quiet leaders establish firm unspoken boundaries, careful to minimize emotional expressiveness, sharing of personal information or inquiring about their people’s lives. They inhabit a very intellectual and thought-provoking world, kept close to the vest.

Do you relate to some of these traits? You may have quiet-leader tendencies that cause you to manage from a distance, with a hands-off approach. Some of your people may appreciate this style; some may struggle with it. Some may consider it so foreign that they’re unsure how to react.

The Ups and Downs of Quiet Leaders

Though a “knowledgeable observer” seems to defy leadership’s relational expectations, this management style benefits an organization in a number of ways. Quiet leaders:

  • Don’t subject employees to tempers, berating treatment or outward anger.  For many, this is a refreshing change in today’s harsh culture.
  • Rarely invoke politics, favoritism or excuses in their decisions and policies.
  • Are objective in their perspectives and choices, based on data and analysis. Emotionally influenced decisions, which can have tragic outcomes, are not part of the picture.
  • Are humble and thoughtful. They put the needs of the organization and employees ahead of their own.
  • Leave their people alone, giving them space. Micromanaging is not part of the quiet leader’s style.

While this may seem like utopia to many, these seemingly positive traits can invite long-term consequences if practiced to the extreme. Quiet leaders:

  • May be so hands-off that project details can be overlooked to the point of failure.
  • Can stay too distant from people and their interpersonal issues. Misbehavior, arguments, attitudes and low performance are often overlooked. This can lead to a chaotic and disunified culture, right under the leader’s nose.
  • Are often untrusting of others’ perspectives and instincts, relying only on their own understandings. This limits engagement, unity and better ideas.
  • Avoid feelings, relationships and strong emotions. Employees may be inadvertently ignored or left feeling unimportant. Their personal needs may go unaddressed.
  • Typically don’t care to network or build alliances. This limits their influence and the means to gather support for their objectives (and the chances for long-term impact).
  • Can be self-sufficient enough to avoid delegation. The ability to distribute work, balance resources and meet upper-management expectations suffers.
  • Struggle to engage, inspire and motivate workers. People can be left with the feeling that only numbers matter, rather than relationships and the value of teamwork.
  • Experience analysis paralysis, sidestepping decisions until an unrealistic need for confidence is met. Projects and progress are delayed.

Quiet leaders find fulfillment in their role as strategist, problem solver, vision caster or data cruncher. The esteem and respect they receive for this expertise is reward enough for them. Information is king, and they enjoy processing it to make effective decisions. Only purely objective viewpoints are acceptable to them, and they feel they must be thoroughly informed to perform to high standards. They strictly adhere to policies and procedures as they plan their route to success.

Fear of failure plagues most quiet leaders. Decisions are stressful for them unless all data are exhausted and all possibilities calculated. Procrastination is a viable option for them, as they can put off the prospect of failure.

These unfortunate attributes can put the quiet leader squarely at the center of severe organizational dysfunction and, ultimately, failure.

Dysfunctional Behavior

Knowledgeable observers often have a seemingly harmless appearance, so the downsides of their leadership style may take time to surface.

Dr. Chestnut emphasizes quiet leaders’ need to be alone. Employees won’t see them milling about, engaged in small talk or asking how the weekend went. They limit themselves to their office space and meeting rooms, when an appearance is required. An open-door policy is a rarity.

Quiet leaders are generally shy in social settings. They enjoy technical or analytical conversations but will show discomfort in social ones. Communication is most comfortably conducted remotely. A quiet leader is unlikely to partake in social events during lunch hour or after work, choosing solitude instead.

Leaders also avoid contact with outspoken employees who always have something to say, enjoy creating controversy, or spark disputes and disruption. Their inability to maintain control may become obvious when interpersonal issues go unmanaged or are allowed to fester. Poor employee performance may be similarly dismissed, provoking coworker resentment and further disruption. In contrast, they effectively deal with technical issues that require purely intellectual skills.

Staff performance evaluations are strained, if they actually occur. The entire process may be lacking, leaving employees unsure of how they’re doing. Salary assessments, which can be emotional, are frequently sidestepped.

Quiet leaders take pleasure in dealing with objective issues that make use of their analytical expertise. They examine issues to the nth degree and often frustrate their people by procrastinating. A quiet leader sometimes wants more data when more is unobtainable. They refuse to rely on feelings or instinct to help make decisions.

Another indicator of quiet leadership is a reluctance to seek others’ opinions or perspectives. These leaders try to become expert in a specific issue that relies on their singular assessment. Consequently, they avoid delegation, taking on extra tasks and choosing not to engage or train people. They fail to explain their expectations, so staff often doesn’t know where things stand.

Each of these behavioral traits presents an awkward situation, resulting in some level of organizational difficulty. When combined, they lead to significant dysfunction. Without corrective measures, the damage often becomes irreparable.

Advice for Quiet Leaders

Those who understand the quiet personality can help leaders adopt more effective approaches. Executive coaches are particularly qualified to help leaders navigate the emotional and unpredictable nature of human behavior. Leaders can learn how to cope when they feel a loss of control or face conflict. Fear of failure and other insecurities can be effectively managed, and a professional coach can offer valuable stress-management tools.

Quiet leaders are capable of learning that relationships needn’t lead to vulnerability, exposure or rejection. With the right mentoring, they can venture beyond their comfort zone.

It’s difficult to step back and observe oneself, assess character flaws and prescribe self-remedies. The viewpoint of a trusted coach or colleague is a valuable resource for identifying areas for improvement.

Quiet leaders must learn they don’t have the corner on analytical thinking, Dr. Chestnut asserts. With coaching and encouragement, they can begin to accept other perspectives and experiences. The next steps are collaborating with people and developing the courage to discuss ideas on their technical and cultural merits. (This may take a coworker’s prompting.)

Learning to expand the power of relationships and deal with people is crucial. Leaders are more motivated to overcome their inhibitions when they fully grasp the consequences of refusing to change. Using case studies, an experienced coach can remind them of the personal and organizational penalties for keeping one’s distance.

Quiet leaders will ultimately discover their relationship fears are overblown. People are not out to expose, defeat or reject them. Workplace drama is normal and isn’t typically subversive. People want someone to support and follow. They generally want to do great work and succeed. An effective coach teaches the quiet leader how to build trust, let go and ease into taking some risks.

Working for a Quiet Leader

Drawing quiet leaders out of their shells takes patience and understanding. The best approach to helping them feel safe in relationships is to be professional and straightforward, holding back emotional responses or subjective language. Quiet leaders need to know they can collaborate with low risk and enjoy the process with a sense of comfort and productivity. Repeated positive experiences lower their walls.

Offer to help with tasks and ask how they prefer them to be done. Leaders will gradually see the benefits of involving others in their work. Giving positive feedback on how you enjoyed the process offers further encouragement.

Approach quiet leaders with requests for help or training, which further builds rapport and opens doors. Don’t ambush them with spur-of-the-moment issues; rather, ask for an appointment and be sensitive to their need for structure and planning. Quiet leaders hate surprises, so inform them of significant issues as soon as you’re aware of them. Present important details in a calm, objective fashion. You’ll earn their trust with other issues that crop up, and they may learn to collaborate with you in solving them.

Quiet leaders lack the people skills that many consider necessary for effective leadership, but they nonetheless often find themselves in positions of authority. While they may seem like fish out of water in some respects, they can be coached and encouraged to expand their comfort zones, grow their trust and engage others.

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