Harnessing the Quiet Power of Introverts at Work
Introverts are often misunderstood and marginalized in organizational culture.
How can we create professional environments that celebrate Introverts for their contributions, and foster conditions for them to thrive?
If I had a dollar every time I encountered someone who wholeheartedly believed in a myth about Introverts, I'd have enough for that Italian villa I've been eyeing and a yacht to sail away on. Although they comprise more than half if US population (56%), Introverts are often misunderstood, underrepresented, and underutilized in American organizational culture.
We celebrate the charisma and entertainment of extraversion, while mitigating the Introvert's contribution of a slow-and-steady approach to relationship building. We revere those who share thoughts quickly, instead of those who patiently information gather before sharing ideas. Companies unconsciously favor an extraverted way of working and marginalize the positive contributions of Introverts to organizational culture.
If we agree that effective leadership requires the ability to cultivate potential others, leaders must not only understand Introverts, but also create opportunities for them to thrive. So let's understand what it means to be an Introvert, clear up a few myths, and strategize ways to leverage the strengths Introverts bring to the organizational table.
The Oxford dictionary defines an Introvert as:
a shy, reticent person and/or someone predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things.
Therein lies the problem. No offense to the linguistic elite, but this inadequate definition fosters deep misconceptions about what it means to be introverted. Let's address the common myths about introversion before we consider a more accurate description of this personality type.
Introverts are shy - While they tend to pause and take in their environment (and the people in it) before engaging, Introverts can be willing social contributors, capable of relationship-building and networking in public-facing roles. Introverts will be the first to admit cocktail parties are not be their favorite way to spend an evening, but that does not mean they lack the ability to capitalize on informal opportunities to build connections. As Adam Grant (my favorite Organizational Psychologist) once brilliantly tweeted "I am not anti-people, I am pro-quiet." Amen, brother.
Introverts are loners - Although happy to work independently and autonomously, Introverts are solid team players, capable of collaborating toward a common goal. In group settings, Introverts are often quiet and reserved participants who chose their contributions carefully. They do not feel it necessary to make a strong impression on the group and do not readily seek the spotlight. Extraverted members of the team can misinterpret introverted behaviors as a reluctance to collaborate and falsely assume Introverts do not enjoy working on teams.
Introverts are smug - The reserved and careful approach Introverts bring to work can be falsely interpreted by more extraverted members of the team as smug, judgmental, or superior. Extraverts tend to mistrust those who keep their cards close to the vest and perceive a cautious approach to communicaiton and problem-solving as a potential symptom of sinister intent. Introverts pause to reflect before sharing their thoughts, and this preference should build trust with colleagues, not deteriorate it.
Introverts are sad - Outgoing and relationship-oriented individuals can misidentify introspective Introverts as sad and withdrawn. Extraverts cannot conceive of being happy and being alone at the same time, so they inaccurately assume that Introverts must be depressed and/or lonely if they are not actively engaging in efforts to build connection with others. For Introverts, happiness and contentment come from adequate time alone to reflect on their inner world. They enjoy opportunities to be with their own thoughts and feel energized by adequate downtime.
Introverts are bad leaders - Anyone is capable of successful leadership, and while Introvert leaders may not prioritize commanding attention and charisma, they do convey gravitas and depth with their executive presence. They build strength, one relationship at a time, and bring a contemplative lens to their professional decision-making. They even understand the importance of work-life balance and often create cultures where time to rejuvenate is a priority. In fact, about 70% of CEOs describe themselves as introverts - Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Marissa Mayer must be doing something right.
Now that we have covered what introversion is not, let's define what it actually means (a-hem, Oxford):
Introverts are people who prefer time alone to contemplate feelings and ideas before taking decisive action.
Introverts are energized by solitude and prioritize time for personal reflection before making decisions and voicing opinions. They are willing social participants, yet they become depleted by socialization and need quiet time to restore their energetic reserves. While they are comfortable working independently and autonomously, they are also steady contributors in team-oriented environments. Introverts focus their relationship energy one-on-one and rely on a steady, consistent approach to building connection. They foster meaningful connections with others over time, and achieve relationship depth over breadth.
Introverts create value in organizations by:
Prioritizing the accumulation of information, data and knowledge through research
Pausing to reflect and consider before speaking, acting or deciding
Developing deep insight through careful, cautious consideration
Cultivating strong, individual connections with colleagues over time
Working independently and autonomously
Challenging themselves to create value instead of adding to the noise
Being effective listeners who focus on learning over entertaining
Introverts are amazing organizational benefactors who deserve more than the shy,
loner-in-a-hoodie our society had stereotyped them to be.
They are deeply contemplative individuals who focus on the quality of their relationships and professional contributions. Organizations need leaders with an introverted approach to create a balanced, mindful and contemplative decision-making process - so how do we create organizational conditions where Introverts thrive?
With all of the worthy contributions Introverts make to organizations, how can we create cultures that capitalize on the strengths of the introverted personally, rather than force them to assimilate to a more extraverted way of working?
Think about the impact of extraversion on your selection and hiring process. We tend to value charisma and perceive it as confidence. We allow ourselves to be entertained and overestimate the importance of quick rapport building to creating positive outcomes at work. We also misinterpret contemplative pauses as uncertainty and misread unemotional nonverbal cues. Educate your managers about the differences between Extraverts and Introverts early in the relationship-building process and brainstorm methods to remove charismatic bias from the selection process.
Consider the role of Introverts in collaborative efforts and teamwork. Initially, Introverts are likely to be quiet and reserved when working on teams. They take it all in, choose their contributions carefully, and wait for opportunities to create meaningful value. Introverts do not talk just to talk or aim to make their presence felt in a room. Unfortunately, this cautious approach to team contributions is often misinterpreted by others as lacking executive presence and influencing skills. To make sure you provide opportunities for Introverts to thrive - consider soliciting their perspective one-on-one, rather than group settings, and give them time to think. Managers can leverage the full benefits of a contemplative approach if they allow Introverts on the team time to reflect and prepare contributions in advance of soliciting ideas.
When designing networking, public-facing and client-building opportunities, create conditions for Introverts to thrive. Focus on smaller groups and more intimate gatherings, even within the context of a larger event. Make one-on-one introductions whenever possible and keep networking time short. A three-day conference full of handshaking is likely to make an Introvert completely miserable, so see what can be done to vary the methods of relationship building to capitalize on the strengths of both Extraverts and Introverts in public-facing situations.
Introverts tend to avoid the limelight and miss opportunities to promote themselves within their organizations. They can be less outspoken when it comes to their own advocacy and will not forcefully promote their own agenda. Organizations should be mindful of this tendency and create opportunities for visibility and exposure. Consider career development plans that create a higher executive profile and coach Introverts on engagement methods that spotlight their contributions.
Brainstorm ways to support Introverts in leadership roles. While Introverts naturally create value when it comes to brainstorming, critical thinking, and mindful decision making, they may benefit from efforts to build skills that do not come as easily to their personality type. Focused training on team building, performance management, conflict management, and influencing skills may foster conditions where Introverts harness the potential in their approach to leadership.
When evaluating ourselves as Extraverts or Introverts, it is important to note that these are nonbinary distinctions. We all exist on a spectrum of energy, with Extraverts who draw energy from others on one side, and Introverts who draw energy within on the other.
Most of us - an overwhelming 65% - have both Introvert and Extravert tendencies. These in-between individuals require alone time, as well as adequate time to interact with others. In fact, there are so many people that exist in the mid-range of the Introvert vs. Extravert spectrum that organizational psychologists are coining a new term: Ambivert. An Ambivert is "a person who has a balance of extravert and introvert features" (Oxford finally got one right).
To find out where on the energetic spectrum you fall, try 16personalities.com for a quick personality assessment. While this assessment is for entertainment purposes only and does not ask enough questions to definitively identify your personality type, it is a fun tool to gain insight about your Introvert/Extravert/Ambivert status.