Welcome to the land of introversion, you extrovert you. While your side gets better representation in today’s brash world, the introverted among us tend to be more of an enigma. When you’re working with some of these folks, you may be wondering how you can make sense of their mystifying behaviors.
If that’s you to a T (or an E), keep scrolling.
First, let’s knock down some misconceptions: introverts aren’t shy people who lack social skills. This sensitive type just powers up in a way that’s the total inverse of you: through solitude instead of socializing. And it’s a complex beast. Introverts can still be social butterflies, they just might not get the same pizazz from it that you do.
Really, introversion is just a different way of being that can sometimes be at odds with our culture where extroversion rules. Yet with a little awareness, you can enable your team of introverts to do the best work of their lives. Here are some pointers.
1. Respect their need for quiet.
Many introverts have an innate need for aloneness. It doesn’t mean they shiver at the thought of people—it’s simply how they center themselves. You can give them their solitude fix in a few ways.
Perhaps it’s as simple as establishing a universal sign indicating when someone is in the zone. Or maybe you just have a ground rule that says you don’t interrupt someone when they have headphones on, unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Another idea is to set up a retreat room with comfy furniture so people can get away from all the office chatter. Introverts’ need for quiet can occasionally translate into them not wanting to hang out all the time. Bear in mind that this doesn’t mean they don’t love the team—they just need more time to conserve their energy.
To make events more introvert-friendly, plan them well in advance so people have ample time to work them into their schedules (and add some quiet buffers along the way).
2. Encourage comfortable idea-sharing.
According to Susan Cain, author of one of the seminal books on introversion, “the trick for introverts is to honor their own styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms.”
Your coworker already knows what communication styles feel natural. Ask them to explain what those are, and let their preferences guide you. It might mean they favor emails and Slack messages over spontaneous shoulder taps. For some, writing things down may be more desirable than presenting in front of a large group.
And it’s not about shyness. Psychologist Laurie Helgoe says introverts just “seem shy because they tend to think before they speak.” Honor your introvert’s style and see how comfortable they get when you do.
3. Give them a heads up.
Sensitive types also think differently. Introverts’ brains are wired to “process information about their environments—both physical and emotional—unusually deeply,” writes Cain. “They tend to notice subtleties that others miss—another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”
Because of their ability to feel things to their core, it’s important to give them the freedom to do just that. Instead of springing an event or meeting on them, let your coworker know beforehand whenever possible. For example, if you have a sense of the topics you want to talk about, try to share them so they have enough time to mull things over and explore their thoughts.
After meetings, follow up to see if the person had ideas they didn’t get a chance to share.
4. Sub brainstorming for brainwriting.
Leigh Thompson, author of the Creative Conspiracy, found that in the average six-to-eight-person meeting, 70 percent of the talking is done by three chatterboxes in the room. To prevent the wallflower effect, Thompson suggests experimenting with something called “brainwriting.”
Conduct a brainwriting session of your own by first writing out the problem you want the team to solve. Then, pass out index cards, and instruct attendees to write down one anonymous idea on each. Set a timer, and at the end, collect all the cards. Pin them up and instruct everyone to vote for the top ones. This way, everyone can freely share their ideas, and no one is swayed by the loudest person in the room.
Thompson argues that loose brainstorm structures don’t always work because they’re not a true “meritocracy of ideas.” She says, “I shouldn’t be voting for the CMO’s idea; I should be voting for an idea that I really think is going to be exciting for our company or organization.” With brainwriting, you can bring that meritocracy within reach.
5. And finally, don’t put anyone in a box.
Personality is pliable. While it can help you better understand what someone’s workstyle might be, it doesn’t hold all the answers. If an introvert is interested in working on activities that you think is out of their comfort zone, support them in that choice—don’t think they’re not suited for the task simply because of their type.
Yes, your introvert can have an outgoing streak and still be an introvert. The only way to let your team grow is by understanding that these preferences are for promoting understanding—they’re not a crutch.
There’s no right or wrong way of being. You’re never going to whisk your introvert away to extrovert territory, and neither will they. But by letting go of some of the I/E myths that surround us, you will start to see how beautiful the space between us can be.