Many workers thrive on chatting with co-workers, sharing their news and ideas and breaking up the day’s otherwise boring routine. To these workers, an office filled with the hubbub of impromptu meetings, stopping by desks or running into people in the halls makes for a perfect, productive workplace.
Then there is the estimated one-third to one-half of workers who find frequent conversation and interruptions stressful and unproductive. They crave quiet time and privacy when they need to create, analyze and get their more complex work done. In a tight job market and competitive business environment, employers can’t afford to ignore the talents of a quiet minority who may suffer their more boisterous co-workers in silence or secretly dread going to big meetings and company parties. While their extroverted colleagues feed off social interaction in the workplace, introverted souls need time away from their colleagues to work effectively and be their most productive.
Such workers might be regarded as quiet or even shy, but experts say they bring a lot to the table.
In meetings, extroverts tend to dominate conversations because they jump in and “talk to think,” while introverts sit back so they can “think to talk.”
“They bring very thoughtful and organized responses to problems and a point of view that might be quite different from everybody else’s in the room, so there’s value in how differently they might think about something,” said Hilary Eaton Pearl, an associate with the executive coaching and consulting firm Dattner Consulting LLC. “Usually people who are more introverted are spending more time listening, so they might have been able to pick up on a lot of different data points and put them into a new kind of thought. People who have been talking might not have been picking up on as many nuances of the conversation.”
However, workplaces in general are biased toward extroverts, Pearl says. They have an easier time than introverts meeting and connecting with people and building relationships. In meetings, extroverts tend to dominate conversations because they jump in and “talk to think,” while introverts sit back so they can “think to talk.” The predominance of open office plans also favors extroverts, to whom face-to-face collaboration comes easily, but hinders introverts who prefer quiet spaces or even their own small offices in which to concentrate on individual or small-team work. (See “The Gigantic Gripe: Open Office Plans.”)
The Next Pool of Leaders
Susan Cain, author of the best-selling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says introverts make up a large percentage of workers and potential leaders in creative, technical and quantitative fields. “Introverts tend to think deeply, they tend to listen and ask a lot of questions, they tend to think things through before asking,” she said. “There’s actually a lot of data showing that introverted leaders deliver even better outcomes than extroverted leaders do. . . . This is a question of grooming the next pool of leaders as well as the next pool of great quantitative minds and creative thinkers.”
Cain explains that the difference in the two personality types is that introverts are more sensitive than extroverts to external stimuli such as sound and visual distraction, and too much stimulation leaves introverts feeling drained. Even if introverts have gotten good at pretending to be extroverts, she said, they still prefer to recharge their batteries through solitude rather than socializing.
Pearl can identify with where the different personality types get their energy. “I have a colleague who trains sales managers in front of a classroom teaching, and at the end of the day, while she might need a break, she’s ready to go back down and have drinks with the managers, and has more energy than when she started,” she said. “Someone like me, who has learned how to flex to be more extroverted, can also teach for the whole day at high-level energy, but by the end of the day I honestly just want to lie down. How we tend to use our energy and how much more time we need to regroup after expending energy is quite different.”
Pearl sees introversion-extroversion not as a gaping divide between personality types but more of a spectrum, ranging from highly introverted to highly extroverted, with many workers falling somewhere in the middle. She coaches both personality types to be aware of each other’s style and be flexible in their approach.
Cain also emphasizes that despite the popular image of hard-charging CEOs, data shows introverted leaders deliver extraordinary results. When she hears an organization say one of its introverts doesn’t have the “executive presence” to be a leader, she asks them to define that.
“Not everybody has to be the one who goes into a meeting and has to show great charisma and humor,” she said. “There are other ways of making your mark, by asking thoughtful questions or playing devil’s advocate or bringing fractious groups together. If you see somebody who has that kind of talent, you want to make sure it’s getting cultivated.”
Think Outside the Box When Recruiting
Just as introverts think outside the box, organizations that are aware of the different temperaments may have to do so, too, when recruiting workers who tend to be introverted. Here are some of the experts’ tips:
• When writing job descriptions, include how much interaction, networking and “mandatory fun” a job requires. That way, candidates can preview jobs and apply for the ones that provide their desired amount of stimulation.
• When interviewing, especially for positions that do not require candidates to “think on their feet,” give them a list of questions in advance so they have time to prepare. Also, consider letting them try out or audition for the job — you may learn more by watching them in action than in hearing them talk.
• Promote any of your organization’s policies, benefits and work-life balance efforts that tend to appeal to introverts. Policies that allow employees to work from home or work remotely, even if it’s for just one day a week or in the coffee shop across the street, give quieter workers a chance to get away from the office chatterboxes. Flextime allows workers to come in early or stay late so they can have a more peaceful workplace to themselves. Let workers know your organization focuses on their results versus the hours they spend in the office.
Ways to Keep Introverts Productive
Once an employer has its introverted, productive employees on board, keeping them happy can come in several forms. What the experts say works:
• Introverts are not natural self-promoters, Cain says, but they want to feel that they are contributing and that others know when they have done something great. Have a performance appraisal process or other system in place that gives people the ability to showcase their accomplishments. Examine it for any bias toward evaluating and rewarding extroverted behavior more than introverted behavior.
• Encourage managers to make sure introverts’ voices and ideas are heard, especially in meetings. Sharing agendas in advance gives introverts time to think about items and ask for opportunities to speak. Cain likes Amazon’s strategy of giving people a half-hour at the start of a meeting to read about the purpose of the meeting, which gets extroverts to focus and gives introverts time to understand it. Pearl says going around the room and asking for each person’s thoughts enables managers to get feedback from a variety of people.
• Create sub-teams. “The best leaders and managers understand that they need a mix of people,” Pearl said. “I love the idea of small groups working on projects, because introverts are extremely more comfortable in small groups because they’re with the same people over time and can get to know them better. If you have a savvy resource leader, they can make sure that everybody is being heard.”
• Use online surveys to solicit employees’ ideas and feedback — they’re more comfortable for introverts than public forums.
• Recognize introverted team members’ accomplishments in ways they appreciate. Consider newsletter announcements, gifts or small lunches instead of pulling them on stage and pushing for a speech. Think about what introverts prefer as rewards — autonomy and free time are more valued, Cain says, than being crowded onto a cruise.
• Raise awareness within your organization and have open discussions about how introverts and extroverts prefer to work. When Cain speaks to and consults with companies on introversion, she likes to identify a well-respected senior manager who is introverted and interview him or her on stage. They discuss the strengths they brought to their jobs, their struggles or fears and how they overcame them, and how they make their voices heard in meetings. Employees often are surprised which executives consider themselves introverted, she said, and introverts are pleased to know someone like them can get to the top.
Encourage managers to make sure introverts’ voices and ideas are heard, especially in meetings. Sharing agendas in advance gives introverts time to think about items.
For their part, introverts also need to work at becoming more socially comfortable, Pearl said, and find their own methods for getting breaks. “I encourage people to do things like just get outside, walk around the block just to get time to think,” she said. Others remind introverts that getting to know their co-workers has benefits, too.
In the ideal future workplace, companies would truly harness the talents of the introverts who work for them. “I’ve been incredibly excited and heartened by the sheer number of companies and C-level executives that have taken this on,” Cain said. “At the same time, there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Jane Larson is a freelance writer with WorldatWork.