The case for the Silent Shaker

Heavily involved in drama and theatre at school, I struggled in the spotlight.

I was a great dancer, actor and singer — but my strength wasn’t in the heat and brightness of the beams of light on the stage; my strength was in supporting the flow and movement of the show. I was also a soprano singer in the classical choir, pressed between the other singers, behind the soloist on the stage; I was the angelic voice that broke through and lifted the emotion of a hymn, in the grandest of cathedrals. I wasn’t in the spotlight; I was a part of the performance. I held the space for the soloist in the spotlight; in these moments I was the Silent Shaker.

I refer to an experiment by William Muir, an evolutionary biologist spoken about by Margaret Heffernan at TEDwomen 2015 arguing that the ‘pecking order’ is real and abundant among chickens. The experiment found that when you look at what makes a ‘high-performing chicken’; it is not simply their ability to lay high numbers of eggs. It is in fact social capital among all of the chickens in the roost. It’s the silent nuances in the community of the high-performing chickens. It is the Silent Shakers. 
 
 I argue that whether it is a theatre performance, a chicken roost or an organisation, the Silent Shakers are an unseen brilliant force that weaves through a high-performing culture. They are high-performers in their own right, but they are more. They also help other performers perform.
 
 So who are they? I define silent shakers as people who possess high empathy for others. They most likely score low on a Social Dominance test (do the test in this article). They are connectors and visual thinkers who see the relationships between ideas and people, and who possess the ability to capture the feeling and emotion of a message and push it into the hearts and the minds of the audience or the customer. They create a social echo that amplifies impact. They are brokers of social capital and they are often forgotten when it comes to award-giving and recognition. 
 
 I’ve written before about high-performers, and I self-identify as one, but I feel so strange saying it, because when I reflect on my own life journey, I have never really yearned for the spotlight. I am embarrassed by social recognition or awards. I am a team player, and have been the Silent Shaker for many brilliant causes, people and ideas. I haven’t ever wanted, or needed to be recognised for any of it, but I wonder though, because there is no broader recognition of the Silent Shakers, whether our society is forgetting how much we need them?

In 2014, I founded an organisation. My mother and I had cared for my grandfather at home in his final years of dementia, and I was frustrated at the culture that I observed among the nurses that I came in contact with, arguably one of the highest caring professions in human history. Just like the example of the high-performing chickens — nursing as a profession is a complex web of high-performers and Silent Shakers. The push for excellence, scientific underpinnings and academic rigour in the last 20 years has influenced the profession profoundly. The simple art of caring for another person in their most vulnerable state has been lost by a focus only on the condition of the person, and not on the connection. In order to provide a voice for the Silent Shakers in the nursing community I sought to create a network for new and young nurses to connect to meaning, and to share stories in order to strengthen their brilliance. It was hugely successful. But ironically, I had become the sage on the stage in the process, the face of the organisation. I was awarded, written about in articles — and I absolutely drowned. I learned first-hand that I either needed silent shakers around me to hold me up, or I needed someone else to take the stage. I lost all motivation when the cause became about ‘me’.

In a world where ‘busy’, self-promoting high-performers are recognised and awarded for the value they create — how do we keep the silent-shakers motivated? 
 
 As Margaret Heffernan describes in the second part of William Muir’s high performing chicken experiment; when the highest-laying chickens were put together (‘super-chickens’), only three survived. The rest had been pecked to death by their super-chicken peers. Though this is a morbid example, it’s happening in our organisations and in society and our personal lives.

I ask you to consider anyone great in history. Think about the people around them who advised, who coached, and who inspired them. Think about the people around you who advise you on how to navigate politics, who see the subtle dynamics in the ecosystem around you; the brokers of social capital, and how critical they are. I ask you to remember them when you award the sage on the stage. There is no need to acknowledge them by name, but perhaps point to them knowingly. Throw a flower to them, and acknowledge that without their voice, the performance would not have been the same.