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Where Have All the Wallflowers Gone? (And Why It Might Be Advantageous to Be One)

Written By Ryan Hynes | Dec 4, 2018

Whenever I vow to “try hard” at work, I end up over-communicating. I reply to every request. I take on way too many projects. I cut people off and short-circuit in conversation. I appear to be very, very busy, but in a way that actually ends up being… unproductive.

Drawn out by an unspoken pressure to reply all, and to “comment in the doc when you can!”, or to make a callback joke to Tuesday’s brainstorm, creatives are becoming increasingly responsible for a myriad of extra communication — each bit of which feels like doing extra work. We’ve grown to talk more, to talk first, and to overwrite our ideas.

(This is mostly because we now have tools to communicate 24/7).

But the truth is, most creative managers value a quiet, self-edited creative. They trust people who choose their words carefully and spend more time listening than talking. In fact, listen closely and you can hear managers all over the world whispering to themselves, “Where have all my wallflowers gone?” 

Even if you’re more of a loud, whatever-comes-out-of-me-is-my-genius type, there’s something to be said for sitting back every once in a while. Here are five times you might want to rein it in:

1. When no one else is saying anything.

When there’s a lull in creativity, you can always send in bad ideas. In fact, many teams encourage a barrage of bad ideas by offering “always on” communication in Slack.

But researchers at Harvard Business School recently found that iterative exposure within your team yields better results than constant exposure does. That is to say, when people are left to brainstorm on their own a bit, and then meet together, and then go back on their own, the team is more likely to accidentally strike gold.

When the team’s struggling to come up with something spectacular, it might be time to sit in the silence. It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s a little like stretching into a leg cramp. Just wait it out. Be patient. Give it a bit. We’ll all get there together.

2. When you had to Google what everyone’s talking about.

News moves so quickly nowadays, we often jump on bandwagons without really knowing their wheels.

This came up a lot for me when I worked at a publisher. I can’t tell you how nonsensical reply-alls or moderately offensive brainstorm comments could have been prevented if someone withheld opinion on a topic they honestly didn’t know much about.

Be wary of commenting on a news event or cultural trend that you didn’t hear of before now. Be wary of headline-reliance. Be wary of assuming which side of a topic someone’s on!

When the team’s struggling to come up with something spectacular, it might be time to sit in the silence.

By all means, definitely Google the trend, event, or meme. But if you were out of the loop from its inception, consider withholding for a bit. Listen to what others have to say first, and you might avoid saying something you regret.

3. When everyone else is saying everything.

Ping me! Gchat her! The image won’t load! CHAOS.

 When times are busy and loud, it might be a good time to be a wallflower. Reduction can feel counterintuitive for a good creative. We tend to want to add more, make bigger, make brighter, make it our own. But amidst swirls of random asks, the real ask might be for an edit. In these cases, it’s helpful to reply, “On it!” and figure out the mess on your own. Even if you’re not perfectly right, you’ll alleviate the burden of confusion that’s so obviously tearing through your team.

A sloppy email thread is not an invitation to add more slop, especially if the confusion stems from a boss. If their communication is all over the place — if they are missing major details or asking for contradictory outcomes — you’re probably being asked to reduce and synthesize the whole thing on their behalf.

4. When the idea is bad!

Sometimes bad ideas are meant to be ignored. Sometimes God closes a door, only to open a window that reveals a Dead End sign.

I learned this lesson when I was working at a small startup. When your team is lean and your ambition is big, you can accidentally get in deep on an ill-fated project. There aren’t as many checks and balances; there simply aren’t enough people to flag bad ideas.

My boss warned me about this. She recommended that I politely stay quiet when ideas ideas are presented that I don’t think have legs. Silence itself can help the team understand what works and excites — and what doesn’t. My boss told me that she sees deflection as a proactive part of work. She refuses to feign interest in bad ideas. Instead, she nips them in the bud through calm, prudent brevity.

Worth noting, this is different than shooting down bad ideas, which is, of course, an option. But silence keeps the brainstorming spirit alive better than overt criticism does.

5. When the idea is really, really good.

This one’s hard. Sometimes when we have a really good idea we want to explain it to death. We want to ensure the other party knows each and every element that ladders up to our idea’s greatness! 

But when the idea is really, really good — when you feel it in your bones — it might be best to present fewer defenses.

I learned this lesson while presenting with a really talented Sales Executive. She told me to pull out six slides that explained the details of the campaign concept. 

“They’ll get it from the first slide,” she said. “And they’ll feel better if they think they’re making up the other ones.”

Good ideas tend to be universal; a simple way to get someone else onboard is to let them finish your sentence — to arrive at their own crafted conclusion and grace the concept with their final touch.

(Yes, I’m very aware that this blog about saying less does so in, like, a thousand words. I’m very sorry to say I’m not perfect. But also truth is dead, so bear with me!)

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