Tap Introverts’ Potential to Improve Your Staff

Managers can adopt strategies to bring out the best in their quieter staff members.

Tap Introverts’ Potential to Improve Your Staff

A flashy, bright-red Ferrari Portofino will attract a lot of attention in a parking lot. A shiny new Honda Accord? Probably not so much — even though it’s a well-designed and reliable car that gets the job done.

The same dynamic exists in the workplace, as lively and outgoing extroverts often overshadow their quieter, introverted colleagues. While it’s only human nature for people to notice extroverts more than introverts, managers who do so run the risk of overlooking the potential these lower-profile employees bring to the table, says Jennifer Kahnweiler, Ph.D., an internationally known speaker and executive coach.

Kahnweiler is the author of Creating Introvert-Friendly Workplaces. “It’s not unusual for introverts to get passed up for promotions, especially since they’re not comfortable with self-promotion,” says Kahnweiler, a self-described extrovert who, ironically enough, has built a reputation as a champion of introverts. She’s also written two more books about introverts — The Introverted Leader: Succeeding as a Leader in Today’s Extroverted Workplace and Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference. “They could be good leaders but often get overlooked, although I don’t think managers set out to snub them intentionally.

“One big problem organizations face is a hidden bias against introverts, particularly in companies with cultures where employees are expected to be ‘on’ all the time. Introverts can create negative impressions — that they’re not friendly or not team players or don’t have a lot to add to the conversation.”

Quiet but Effective

There’s no question that introverts can be effective leaders. A quick roll call of famous introverts attests to that fact: Albert Einstein, Abe Lincoln, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Warren Buffett, to name a few.

In fact, introverts — who make up an estimated 40% to 60% of the population — bring many talents to the workplace. They tend to be creative and self-aware; excel at research and preparation; enjoy serious, one-on-one interactions; are good at encouraging others and resolving conflicts; and are adept at developing well-planned arguments that can skillfully influence others, Kahnweiler notes.

So how do managers go about tapping the potential of introverts? It helps to first take time to understand introverts’ worldview.

For instance, keep in mind that introverts easily suffer from what’s called “people exhaustion,” in which too much outside stimulation leaves them drained and stressed out. So don’t take it the wrong way if an introvert seems unusually subdued after a lot of social interaction.

In addition, since introverts prefer to avoid confrontations, they often have a hard time saying no when asked to take on additional tasks. That, too, can lead to stress, Kahnweiler says.

“You need to educate yourself about introverts,” she says. “Introversion is an element of diversity. We put so much emphasis on ethnicity, gender and cultural backgrounds in workplaces, but not as much on personality styles.”

Here’s the Plan

One thing managers can do — and it’s good for introverts and extroverts alike — is provide detailed agendas for meetings. “I call it meeting hygiene,” Kahnweiler says.

Why does this help? Because introverts typically are better at tackling problems if they have time to prepare, as opposed to unexpectedly being asked to come up with ideas. Giving introverts advance notice gives them time to think about things and also ensures everyone at a meeting is prepared to fully engage.

“You don’t get the best ideas if only a few people dominate a meeting,” Kahnweiler says.

Furthermore, at the end of a meeting, managers should invite everyone to submit additional thoughts and comments by email — and to copy everyone else at the meeting.

“This plays to the sweet spot of introverts, who prefer to take time for deeper reflection,” Kahnweiler says. “It’s a much more thoughtful process than standing at a flip chart with a marker and asking people to quickly brainstorm ideas, which usually results in the same people contributing (i.e., extroverts).”

It also pays to make time for one-on-one meetings with employees, but especially with introverts. Introverts feel more comfortable in such settings and are more likely to freely express what motivates or frustrates them at work.

“One-on-ones cater to their sensibilities,” Kahnweiler says. “Because of time constraints, such meetings usually are one of the first things to go in terms of priorities, but they’re actually one of the most important things a manager can do.”

It’s also important to create workplace spaces where introverts can feel comfortable working. While complete overhauls of workspaces usually aren’t practical logistically or financially, organizations still should consider finding small spaces that introverts can use for focused work or recharging, she says.

“For input, you can ask introverts how effective they think their workplace is in terms of providing spaces for collaboration, socialization and focused work,” Kahnweiler says. “We also now know that introverts are more sensitive to light and noise … their dopamine is activated in different ways. So that needs to be taken into consideration, too.

“The good thing is none of this requires a lot of extra effort or money. It’s all about creating awareness and conditions where introverts can thrive like everyone else.”


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