So often throughout my career, I have heard the words, “You were quiet during the meeting. Is everything ok?” The truth is, I’m actually doing great. While you were talking, I was absorbing and processing. While you were brainstorming out loud, I was taking notes and thoughtfully considering your ideas. And at the same time, I was formulating ideas of my own from a different perspective. I’m not shy. I’m an introvert.
My second year in college, I was approached early in the semester by my professor of Shakespeare Literature, who told me that I was failing the class. Completely perplexed and panicked, I set up a time to meet with her and discuss my failing efforts. I hadn’t even turned in my first paper yet! I brought my paper with me and prepared myself for an uncomfortable conversation. What happened next was entirely different from what both my professor and I expected. We had a lively and interesting conversation about our readings. I offered my thoughts, opinions, and questions on the text. She loved my paper. See, she thought I wasn’t engaged. She thought I hadn’t been keeping up with the materials. In reality, I was on top of it. I was thinking, processing, learning, and organizing my thoughts. The reason I was failing was because in a world where we are expected to “live out loud,” I come across as shy and unengaged. Thus began my journey as a self-proclaimed introvert.
As a leader, have you ever mistaken the quiet person for the poor performer or the person who seems disassociated during meetings? You just might have an introvert on your team. We work in different ways and are often mysterious beings to those who like to “live out loud.” We are often made uncomfortable by our extroverted peers in the workplace. We like our quiet, we like personal relationships, and we like time to think.
Thankfully, there is much discussion on the power of introverts in the workplace today. Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” has given introverts a voice. Did you know that 50% of workers self-identify themselves as introverts and 96% of leaders self-identify themselves as extroverts? (Quiet Leadership Institute, www.quietrev.com). We can’t ignore our quiet colleagues; nor should we. In Jenna Black’s recent blog on Huffingtonpost.com, she observes the different ways that introverts bring value to an organization. My favorite is: “Listening and observing is one of the quiet powers of an introvert. We love nothing more than to watch and listen so we can serve immense value that truly hits the mark.” In other words, we may not always speak up, but when we do, you can count on it being thoughtful.
When we act as coaches and look to put together teams, we need people who can play different positions. Introverts and extroverts can’t play the same role and shouldn’t be expected to, just as a goal tender isn’t expected to score goals. To be successful, you need a mix of both.
If you know or believe that you have introverts working for you, I encourage you consider them differently. Think about how you can maximize their unique strengths and balance their contributions with your extroverted players.
Consider these simple ideas to maximize your introverts:
- The open floor concept, which is very popular in the modern day workplace, can be stressful to your introverts. Consider providing them with a quiet and more private space to work. Telecommuting, on occasion, is an option.
- Introverts actually are social people! Introverts tend to prefer more intimate gatherings. Offer alternatives to the noisy happy hours to provide your introverts a way to socialize in a less noisy environment.
- Introverts need time to think. Scheduling back to back meetings can be draining to the introvert. Introverts prefer to structure their own day. They will get the work done, but might need to have more time to reflect and less time group brainstorming.
- If you want an introvert to share his or her thoughts during a meeting, be sure to give him or her time on the agenda. Introverts like to choose words carefully and don’t always enjoy being put on the spot to provide their best work.
As you look forward to planning your teams and motivating your staff, I challenge you to pay attention to the not-so-squeaky wheel. That quiet employee just might have the fresh idea or solution you are looking for.