Leveraging the Hidden Power of Half Your Workforce
They make up approximately half of the population, but are often misunderstood. Introverts—those who gain energy and power through reflection and solitude—are frequently mistaken as shy, stuck up, or disengaged. What’s more, extroverts are more prone to be rewarded, leaving introverts overlooked, underestimated, and struggling to meet societal expectations.
As a staff psychologist, Laurie Helgoe felt pressure to see more and more clients. A visit to her psychoanalyst finally enabled her to put words and reason to what she was feeling. “For the first time, I admitted that I didn’t want a big caseload,” says Helgoe. “It was so freeing to speak honestly about what worked for me and what didn’t.”
During a trip to the Amazon with her high-school-age son, his classmates, and their parents. Helgoe felt the need to excuse herself from some of the group activity so she could just take in the experience. “I felt more oppressed by the constant presence of people than I did by the mosquitos.” During times of solitude on that trip, Helgoe jotted down notes—notes that later became the basis of her book, Introvert Power: How Your Hidden Life Is Your Inner Strength. “I knew that there were countless introverts in similar situations feeling exactly what I was feeling. I wanted to reach out to those introverts, tell them they were not alone, and correct the illusion that extroversion was the norm and the standard of healthy behavior.“
Angela Johnson Meadows, Diversity Best Practices’ Content Director, connected with Helgoe to discuss why introverts are so misunderstood, why companies should include introverts in their diversity efforts, and how organizations can successfully leverage and manage introvert power in the workplace.
Introverts are often thought to be shy, quiet, and not interested in people. Why do people make these assumptions?
We are a very “what you see is what you get” society, and introverts keep their best stuff inside. An introvert may look quiet or shy or “stuck up” on the outside, and inside be actively engaged—listening, thinking on multiple levels, preparing a response. (Introverts think first and then respond.) Brain scans show that introverts generally have more mental activity in response to external stimulation than extroverts do, so in a way we’re more engaged than extroverts.
What impact do these assumptions have on introverts' success in the workplace?
An introvert who is sitting back at a meeting and not “contributing” may be one of the people who is tracking what everyone is saying, thinking through the implications, and will ultimately have the best perspective on the problem. But if the work norms equate quiet with disengagement, that person will be considered a slacker. Efforts to engage reflective introverts by talking more or interrogating them only interrupt their thinking, add more stimulation, and may indeed cause introverts to disengage. That’s the vicious cycle: trying to force extroversion on an introvert, causing them to disengage, and then accusing them of being disengaged.
Can companies benefit from making a specific effort to attract employees on the introverted end of the personality spectrum?
I do think companies will benefit from making their workplaces attractive to introverts, and recruiters need to look beyond surface qualities to see all that potential employees bring to the table. Introverts are wired to enjoy problem-solving. They can tolerate—even enjoy—the stretches of solitude necessary for creative and analytical work.
Not only should introverted strengths be considered in recruiting, employers would do well to foster and grow the introverted talent they already have. Education is key, and the resources are readily available. Personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are routinely used in work settings, and provide a language for discussing work preferences and strengths.
I received a letter from an executive who gave copies of INTROVERT POWER to her boss and coworkers. She started educating people by telling them she was an introvert and clarifying what that meant—not shy, hates work happy hours, needs quiet time to refuel. As she became more open, many coworkers shared similar feelings. Her boss, whom she was sure was an extrovert, confided his dread over an upcoming social event for work. Sometimes all it takes is to start the conversation.
What do managers need to know to effectively manage introverts?
Introverts do their best thinking when alone. They prefer one-on-one conversations to group free-for-alls. You may be mistaking introverts for extroverts: introverts may be quite social, but they need time to pull away and reflect.
Introverts don’t need you to entertain them at the workplace. If you want to reward an introvert, a gift certificate for a massage or weekend away would be much more appreciated than a party or ceremony. Talented introverts may not tell you how great they are, but they’ll show their stuff through what they create, the problems they solve, and by making their employees shine. Less is more for introverts. Give them the conditions to work and leave them alone. At the same time, introverts appreciate being asked for input. Just give them a chance to think first.
(For more, read "Five Tips for Successfully Managing Introverts and Extroverts in the Workplace." Diversity Best Practices memberhip required.)
Companies tend to view leaders as those who are outgoing and charismatic. What can companies do to ensure that their introverted employees are not overlooked for leadership opportunities?
Look a little closer. Notice the employees who listen intently, furrow their brow as they consider what’s being said, ask difficult questions, draw out others, wait to speak until they have something to say—and then silence the room with their insight. Notice work products and not just workers. Notice the people in supportive roles who help others shine. Notice the people who observe and know what’s going on. Notice the work that’s being done under the radar while the talkers run interference.