Counting the quiet ones: Why you must care for introverts
They may be quietly hammering away, but introverts bring a uniquely valuable set of skills and strengths to the workplace, which senior management would do well to play up.
Quiz time! What do Al Gore, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and Warren Buffett have in common?
If your answer is that they are popular public figures, you would be spot on. Except, that is not the only common factor. Oxymoronic as it may seem, they are public figures who are introverts!
And this is not a small group – the introverts, that is. A third of the world population counts itself in this group. Interestingly, the more intelligent a person, the more likely (s)he is to be introverted. In fact, 75% of people with an IQ higher than 160 are said to be introverts. These are of the ilk that is energized when alone and drained when in any social gathering – quite the reverse of what extroverts feel. However, while analysts might favor a company led by an extroverted CEO, research is on the side of introverts as they are more likely to exceed the expectations of their boards.
Look back at a typical office meeting. One person led it, there was a discussion right at the end, the department head added some insights, some colleagues voiced their appreciation, and a couple of people stayed quietly attentive throughout.
Want to spot the introvert more easily? Offer two choices about how to spend a day:
- Brainstorming with coworkers in an open-plan office; OR
- Diving into a creative project with oneself, and no meetings
You can be quite certain that the latter option will be the choice of an introvert. Someone like this is more sensitive to stimulation, cherishing deep thinking and reflection. The best work from an introvert often comes with frequent periods of rest and recharging. He or she may not be big on small talk, but bring up a problem and you are proffered a great solution – after some time off in the corner to think, of course.
Introverts closely consider what they will say before they actually say it; so, they often need time outside of meetings and noisy cubicles to go over what was covered or what they need to do before they can make an actual contribution to the team. Live brainstorming may not be their forte, but you would be unwise to bet against some great ideas coming through their follow-up emails.
However, real-life plays into the hands of extroverts. Our culture celebrates them as movers and shakers; assertive, engaged, and gregarious leaders. Misconceived as its emphasis on being assertive, loud, and powerful maybe, it ensures extroverts are considered critical to the typical workplace, with open workspaces and day-long meetings. They get more attention, rewards, opportunities, and promotions too.
The same culture overlooks the strengths of introverts: creativity, focus, grit, and leadership. The evil lurking in the corner is perception, which shows introverts in poor light – quiet, shy, poor collaborators. This is no gospel truth, but introverts end up trying to be more extroverted in order to succeed – and this act can be such an exhausting way to live!
Management can scarcely afford to let this difference in perception stand; indeed, it is often the perpetrator of this perception. There is a clear and present need for being more accommodating to an introverted employee, given how his or her communication style and way of work differ starkly from those of an extrovert. An introvert is the listener of a group, someone whose head is occupied with processing all manner of inputs before he or she chooses to speak up. A seemingly underperforming introvert might just be someone who you do not know well enough professionally.
Their strengths may often be seen as weaknesses, but there is no denying they bring a lot to the table, even with the tag of “remarkable” or “shy”. Imagine the payoff of managing them better!
Recognize them by all means, as you should! But beware of the strict no-nos:
- Avoid putting them unexpectedly in the spotlight with, say, an unexpected awards ceremony
- Desist from creating a photo wall of fame in office, especially if it includes photos of introverts without their approval
What could you do, then? Give them time to think, plan and prepare, and respect their space and need for silence while they do so. Be thoughtful and constructive in your feedback, in consonance with their strong critical thinking and attention to detail. Send in a personal email recognizing their accomplishments, or if suitable, recognize them openly but in the presence of only their immediate teams. And while they might not take to a group party to celebrate their achievements, a quiet coffee falls better in line with their preference for low-key, one-on-one social interactions.
What if you are an introvert? You might want to:
- Play to your strengths in communication skills, curiosity, emotional intelligence, and empathy
- Manage your energy more than your time, as the former gets you to do good work
- Curate a calming workspace
- Prepare in advance for meetings, and speak up
There is no denying that introverts are trickier to manage than extroverts. Their particular needs and personalities require a wholly different approach, which could set the team and the company up for success. You need to look for the substance underneath because, as a vice president at a management consulting firm said, “What you see on the surface is only a small percentage of their entire selves. It's just that introverts, left to their own devices, might not help people see the rest of them.”