How do you feel about working with introverts?
Naturally, you want to get the best out of everyone. You want to be able to work well with all your team members and to encourage a supportive culture.
You know all this, but as an extrovert, it can still be hard to know how to work with introverts effectively.
This isn’t a failure – it’s natural. But it is something you should consciously and deliberately address. Introverts likely make up around half of your team, so if you can’t provide the conditions they need to work at their best, you’re missing out on a lot of talent and opportunity.
Your quiet deliverers
At Civil Service College, we recently held a webinar for introverts on ‘How to be a successful introvert’. Among the characteristics of introverts that the participants identified were:
“Thinking through to a conclusion”
“Seeing the bigger picture”
“Giving others space and time to think”
When asked to describe themselves and the way they work and interact, introverts tend to say they work more slowly and quietly than extroverts. They see the value of this way of working, but sometimes feel that their managers and extrovert colleagues don’t.
What extroverts might see as shyness and reticence, introverts see as thoughtfulness and precision. Introverts know that they are just as capable as extroverts at delivering great work, but they will do so quietly.
What is an introvert?
The dictionary definition of introvert is “someone who is shy and quiet, and prefers to spend time alone rather than often being with other people”.
That’s often the perception people have of introverts. To many, the term relates solely to the way introverts interact with and appear to others, rather than their inner life.
But today, especially in the context of workplace behaviour, a different definition of introvert has developed. Many people now use the term introvert to describe someone who may be sociable and enjoy interacting with others, but who will then need to retreat into solitude to recharge. An extrovert, by contrast, will be energised by social activity and not feel the same need to escape once it becomes too much.
That definition will make sense to many and is important to understand when considering your team. You might well have colleagues who can appear extroverted and are capable speakers and networkers, but who find these activities draining.
Even someone who appears confident and competent in their social interactions may sometimes find themselves watching the clock and looking forward to getting home and sinking into a silent hot bath.
Are we all a bit introverted?
Even if you identify as an extrovert, you might well have found yourself nodding along to the description above. You, too, might sometimes find yourself desperate to get home and relax alone after a long day of social interaction.
Most people need a bit of quiet time and silence at times. And this is where defining introverts and extroverts gets a little complicated. Introversion and extroversion are increasingly defined by psychologists as being two ends of a bell-curve spectrum, with the majority of people lying closer to the middle than they are to either end.
Intuitively, this makes sense. Few people are so introverted that they never need others and are entirely energised by themselves and their own inner life. Conversely, the extreme extrovert, who is constantly talking and socialising and never feels the need for a break or a quiet night alone is rare.
Definitions of introversion may vary, but most of us identify as being more one than the other. There is some evidence of physical differences between the brains of introverts and extroverts. Extroverts, it is thought, react differently to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which motivates us to seek external stimulation and pleasure (such as a busy party or loud music concert). Both introverts and extroverts will react to busy environments and the increased dopamine levels they create by exploring and taking more risks. But introverts are more likely to become overstimulated and overwhelmed by them more quickly.
Who are the introverts on your team?
The introverts on your team are those who are more likely to:
Work well alone for long periods without needing reassurance or validation
Notice details, including body language and behaviour
Be good at planning a project to completion, able to analyse each step
Need time to consider all the evidence before making a decision
Communicate intermittently, rather than constantly.
Be thoughtful listeners
Why you should encourage introverts
The introverts on your team are no doubt capable of making a valuable contribution to your work. But because they naturally stand back from the action and take their time to think and observe, their skills can often be underused.
Since introverts are likely to make up at least a third, and perhaps half, of your colleagues, that would be a significant waste of potential, both for those individuals and your organisation.
Some extrovert leaders are naturally inclined to encourage introverts to be more extrovert. This is understandable. If the extroverts on the team appear to be busily collaborating and achieving things, surely it makes sense to get the introverts to do the same? After all, teamwork is fundamental to organisational success.
But this misses the point. Extroverts often appear to be more successful and competent at work because workplace culture, at least in the west, favours them. It’s not that you should encourage your introvert team members to behave more like the extroverts. It’s that you should foster a culture that acknowledges difference and supports people to make the most of their strengths (for both their benefit, and yours).
Working with introverts and cultural bias
It is difficult for many extroverts to see the ways in which our workplaces are set up for introverts. This isn’t the fault of extroverts, but simply a symptom of the way western culture has developed.
Group brainstorming sessions, team working and open-plan offices are all common features of the modern workplace. These things often work well for extroverts, but far less so for introverts, who can find them overstimulating, distracting and a barrier to productivity.
In her book The Quiet Revolution, Susan Cain makes it clear that it is not inevitable that extroverts should dominate in this way. Western (and particularly American) culture values those who are able to jump into the spotlight and talk without needing to spend a great deal of time thinking first. People who can do this are often seen as more competent, able to make decisions quickly and analyse information well.
Cain theorises that this bias dates back to the Greco-Roman empire, in which the ability to speak and argue effectively in public was highly valued. Introverts, who need to think before they speak, are often seen as less competent as a result.
To encourage the introverts on your team, it’s important to recognise that the way you and others perceive introverts and their abilities is likely to be affected by cultural norms.
Encouraging introverts and extroverts to shine equally
Rather than seeing introverts as a problem to be fixed, consider how both introverts and extroverts work and make sure that both groups have equal opportunities to shine and contribute.
While extroverts will often find workplace culture easier to deal with and may see themselves as more competent and successful, there are things that they will struggle with just as much as introverts.
Extrovert strengths and weaknesses
Extroverts are good at group work and collaboration, but this can be a barrier to creativity. Solitude is important to creative work and the development of ideas – which some extroverts may find difficult.
Extroverts are good at sharing ideas and thinking on their feet, but may sometimes fail to give space for others to shine.
Extroverts are good at making connections with others quickly and effectively but may rely too much on external validation.
Extroverts are able to take control of a project without having to spend too much time thinking about it, but can take on too much or struggle to finish what they start.
Introvert strengths and weaknesses
Introverts are good at in-depth thinking and ideas generation but may struggle to implement.
Introverts are good at developing meaningful and productive connections with individuals, but can find it hard to be heard in a group.
Introverts are usually curious, analytical and committed to gathering all the relevant information before making decisions, but can find it hard to think on their feet.
Introverts are excellent listeners and observers but can be self-critical.
How to create an introvert-inclusive workplace
Reading through the strengths and weaknesses listed above, you might have been struck by how much both introverts and extroverts have to offer.
And they do, provided both groups are given the chance to work in the ways that suit them best. You don’t need to know who in your office is an introvert or an extrovert to do this. You don’t need to do personality testing (though many organisations do find personality testing useful).
Whatever the percentage split of extroverts and introverts in your team, you will inevitably have some of each. This is likely to be true even if you work in an area usually seen as heavily skewed to one type – introverts can be remarkably successful salespeople, for example.
Cater for both groups, and your organisation will be able to harness the skills of both equally well.
Provide opportunities for private working
Open-plan offices are our norm, but they’re terrible for introverts’ productivity. According to Susan Cain, the noise, constant stimulation and interruptions make it “neurobiologically that much harder to get their work done.” In other words, introverts are innately disadvantaged by open-plan offices.
While you can’t change the structure of your building, the coronavirus crisis might now provide an opportunity. If your organisation is currently working at least partly from home, this could be the time to start a conversation about how to provide quiet, private workspaces for those who need them when you return.
If you do, it won’t just be the introverts who thank you. As many as 95% of all workers would prefer an enclosed space.
Allow time for preparation and thought
Introverts like to think before they speak. An extrovert will often get quickly carried away by an idea that catches their imagination and will be good at answering questions on the hoof. Introverts need time to process.
Avoid calling last-minute meetings if you can and don’t surprise people at their desks with unexpected questions. Above all, be mindful of the fact that introverts’ need for time to prepare doesn’t reflect on their competence.
Provide opportunities for both solo and group work
Extroverts may come up with their best ideas in a group brainstorming session. Introverts will often find the same sessions unproductive. Extroverts naturally seek collaboration. Introverts need space to work alone.
Wherever you can, provide opportunities for everyone to create and think both individually and in groups.
Keep meetings balanced
Introverts can feel sidelined and ignored by extroverts in meetings. Extroverts’ natural ability to talk about the things that enthuse them means that they often assume that those who don’t speak up aren’t interested.
Make sure introvert voices aren’t drowned out by allowing plenty of time and space for everyone to contribute. Be open to email contributions after a meeting from those who weren’t quite ready to speak during it.
Make no assumptions on how to work with introverts
The only assumption you should make about introverts and extroverts is that you work with both.
A shy extrovert might come across as an introvert, and a confident introvert as an extrovert. Most people will have the ability to cross the spectrum to at least some degree.
Introverts will often push themselves into traditionally extrovert realms, such as networking and public speaking, when they’re passionate about what they do.
You may have introvert team members who haven’t quite had the success they’re capable of yet. Create the right conditions, and you might find they surprise you.