Introverts have more to offer than you might think. Here’s how to get the most from these hidden gems.
It’s no surprise that today’s workforce is incredibly diverse. Diversity provides different perspectives, creates unique solutions, and enriches corporate culture. It can also pose some management challenges. The good news is that regardless of background or other diversity, most people can be grouped into two broad categories: introverts and extroverts. Membership in one or the other impacts a worker’s motivation and productivity for better or for worse. Understanding how to manage workers at either end of the introversion-extroversion spectrum is no doubt challenging, but it’s also an exciting opportunity to engage more of the workforce, more often.
Let’s begin by defining the terms introvert and extrovert. The terms are often thought to be synonymous with shy and outgoing. While it’s true that some introverts can be fearful of social judgment and some extroverts are socially confident, the two terms are, in fact, not the same. Furthermore, it’s incorrect to assume that introverts don’t enjoy socialization as much as extroverts. Instead, the affinity for introversion or extroversion relates to how one responds to stimulation. Looking at it another way, it’s where and how someone receives their energy. Introverts feel best and most alive in quiet environments. In contrast, extroverts enjoy lots of stimulation. However, these rules aren’t true all the time and few people would say they are completely polarized on one side of the spectrum or the other. Most people identify somewhere along the spectrum, including those who fall directly in the centre (called ambiverts).
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is the foremost expert on managing introverted personalities in the workplace. Cain argues that there’s a systemic problem in today’s corporate culture. It can be argued that most businesses cater to, and have bias for, extroverts. Looking at the open-concept offices of today (without any type of separation from one person to the next), one does not have to look far to find stimuli designed for extroverts. There tends to be a lot of ambient noise and visual distractions in busy workspaces, but they are trendy because they are believed to improve communication and collaboration. Similar to the workplaces of today, many schools and educators institute team-based projects for just about every subject (including math, which one would think requires independent thought), with team-based pods – groups of desks – to facilitate activities. Perhaps it’s because an overwhelming number of teachers consider themselves extroverts that they structure lessons this way, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with learning how to work with others, but the heavy emphasis on teamwork may be putting both introverts and extroverts at a disadvantage. Introverts may have trouble voicing their ideas to their peers or they may feel put on the spot and uncomfortable too often. Alternatively, independent thought is important for extroverts to practice. After all, solitude is often the common denominator when it comes to creativity and innovation.
Cain explains that society shifted from a culture of character to a culture of personality in the twentieth century because workers began coming to cities to work where they had to prove themselves to strangers. Regarding an individual’s moral righteousness above all else became second to one’s social magnetism and charisma. Therefore, Cain rightly identifies that workplace culture – and arguably culture at-large – is designed in such a way that in order to be successful, you must be extroverted, or at least act extroverted. You must show team spirit, vocalize your ideas, and be outgoing with your co-workers … or get left behind.
Cain argues that “…when it comes to creativity and leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best.” Cain points to research by Adam Grant of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which says that introverted leaders deliver better outcomes than their extroverted counterparts. The rationale behind these findings is the tendency for introverted leaders to empower their employees and let them to run with their ideas more of the time. “There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” She also believes that leaders like Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks – who described themselves as quiet – were arguably more impressive and listened to when they entered the spotlight because audiences understood that their messages were coming from an authentic place, not because they wanted the attention.
Maximizing the introverts
Cain says that in order to maximize human potential, it’s in managers’ best interests to understand how to get the best out of their people, whether introverted or extroverted. One third to one half of the population considers themselves introverts, after all. So how do we maximize that potential? Consider the following.
While open concept offices are great for some, they are not ideal for everyone. Even extroverts who are easily distracted perform better in quieter, stimulation-free spaces. Office furniture brand, Haworth, estimates that 15% to 20% of offices today are completely cubicle-free. In a 2016 article for Fortune, writer Laura Entis declared “the open-office concept is dead!” Teamwork and collaboration still have a prominent role to play in our workplaces and we shouldn’t scrap these ideas entirely. Instead, the answer lies in choice. Next-generation workplaces are likely to be hybrid spaces containing both common areas and private offices. Mobile technology means that employees aren’t physically restrained to their desks by cables, and therefore shouldn’t necessarily be required to sit at one assigned desk all day. It’s no surprise that companies like Google have pioneered the hybrid office. They have flexible workspaces that allow employees to work where there is lots of stimulation when they feel the need, and quieter workrooms when these spaces will help them be more productive. Also, accommodating flexible work options (such as working from home) can help introverts stay focused, engaged, and more productive.
There are literally thousands of articles on the web teaching introverts how to communicate effectively in extrovert-focused workplaces, but what if the corporate world embraced communication methods preferred by introverts? What would this look like? For starters, managers could allow opportunities to discuss ideas one-on-one or in small group settings, only after allowing introverts to formulate ideas on their own first. It’s important to understand that introverts have opinions and like to share their opinions, but not necessarily in a public forum. Another method is to use written communication, such as email. Research tells us that solitude and independent thinking, whether a person is introverted or extroverted, produces better creative thought then developing ideas in a group. Groupthink and mirroring the opinions of dominant personalities can suppress individuals’ original thoughts and ideas. Furthermore, managers can help introverts by avoiding surprises. Workplace pop quizzes in the form of putting people on the spot can be a recipe for lower self-confidence leading to reduced levels of motivation.
When asked about networking for introverts, Cain suggests it is possible and offers this thoughtful piece of advice: “one genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.” In any event, she suggests taking the pressure off by encouraging introverts to find a kindred spirit in the room and when they find that one person, that’s great. They don’t have to continue meeting people if they don’t want to. Quality over quantity.
Do introverts make good salespeople?
While most ideas of successful salespeople include visions of charming, charismatic personalities, few salespeople can get by on their extroverted nature alone. The ability to analyze buying motives and pay attention to detail, in addition to accountability and follow through, are critical skills a salesperson must possess, and they are also qualities perhaps better attributed to introverts. The argument has been made that introverts actually make the best salespeople. That’s not to say that extroverts don’t have the ability to be more than just the face of a product or service, but long time sales coach, Trent Hand, admits that extroverted salespeople are more likely to wing it than their introverted counterparts. He also points out that introverts tend to study their prospects carefully before pursuing them, leading to a higher sales-to-call ratio than individuals who do less research. Hand also believes that the quieter, more analytical nature of introverts helps ensure that they are more fully prepared for presentations, including preparing to address a range of objections. In an article about introverted versus extroverted salespeople, Hand summarizes the ultimate difference eloquently: “…the difference tends to be that introverts will often work hard to develop the extrovert’s skills, while the extroverts will continue to try to get by on their natural charms.” Furthermore, many sales roles are “inside sales roles”, where employees have very few face-to-face interactions with clients. This can help introverts more easily transition into a sales job.
How NOT to manage introverts
By looking at all the ways to help introverts be themselves and promote optimal, inclusive working conditions for everyone, let’s summarize by listing how not to manage introverts.
Assume that an introvert who is quiet is “shy”
Assume that introverts are anti-social
Pass introverts up for leadership or sales positions, based solely on the fact that they are quieter and more reserved
Design an office space completely open-concept with no private options
Put introverts on the spot
Don’t provide an agenda before a meeting, thereby potentially catching introverts off guard with unknown content
Never have one-on-one meetings, only large-group discussions
Finally, Cain identifies the one thing above all else that managers can do to help introverts, and in doing so, help themselves: “The more freedom we give introverts to be themselves, the more likely they are to come up with their own unique solutions to problems.”