Team Management

An Introvert’s Guide to Being a Great Manager

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 

Free associate the words “great leader,” and you probably flash on a particular type: dynamic, authoritative, outgoing. You likely picture a person whose mere presence takes command of a room. (Maybe even a person who feels other people can’t handle the truth.)

That stereotype often plays out in real life. A recent Myers-Briggs study shows that while more than half of individuals are introverts, only 39% of executives identify as introverted leaders. But, contrary to popular belief, this isn’t necessarily the best for business.

Why introverts make good leaders

Research shows there is no difference in the effectiveness of introvert and extrovert leaders when it comes to team or company performance.

But there’s one catch. Extroverts tend to be better leaders of “reactive employees,” those who constantly seek guidance, direction, and motivation. Introverted leaders are more effective with “proactive employees,” those who take the initiative, work well without supervision, and like to make suggestions.

Since most teams consist of a blend of personalities, extroverts and introverts can be equally successful as leaders. 

But here’s the thing. All businesses—especially small businesses—need proactive employees who are willing to step up, take greater responsibility, and think of ways to improve productivity, quality, and customer satisfaction. Which means every business needs leaders able to foster those behaviors.

So stereotypes aside, introverted leaders may actually have an advantage over their more outgoing peers.

Famous introverted leaders

Introverted? You’re in good company. For every example of a highly sociable, extremely outgoing, “always on” leader, the flip side exists. Like:

  • Bill Gates, who says, “Introverts can do quite well. If you’re clever, you can learn to get the benefits of being an introvert… [going] off for a few days to think about a tough problem, read everything you can, push yourself very hard to think out on the edge of that area… to have a company that thrives on deep thinking.”
  • Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who says, “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
  • Elon Musk, who considers himself to be an “introverted engineer.”
  • Or, oddly enough, my buddy Kirk Hammett of Metallica, who—despite the fact he plays to sold-out stadiums—says, “I’m a complete introvert.”

Seem counterintuitive? 

It’s not. Introverted leaders possess different strengths than extroverted leaders. Where extroverts thrive in chaotic, high pressure, snap-decision environments, introverts tend to think more deeply, plan more thoroughly, consider more before speaking, and stay calmer during a crisis.

Keep in mind neither personality type is good nor bad—they’re just different.

That’s why often there’s a Woz for every Steve Jobs, a Steve Ballmer for every Bill Gates, an Eleanor Roosevelt for every Franklin D. Roosevelt. A key point in Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” is the power of an introvert-extrovert team. 

If you’re an introverted entrepreneur looking for a partner, don’t be tempted to choose someone just like you. Try to find an extrovert who helps balance your personality and leadership strengths.

And speaking of leadership strengths…

4 ways to harness the power of introverted leadership

While you could try to be more extroverted—which is possible, since we all tend to display different personality traits under different conditions—why not play to your strengths? 

For example:

1. Leverage the power of listening.

Introverts tend to be great listeners. Since they have thought deeply about what they believe, they want to know what other people think. 

This can be your secret weapon as a leader. Listen more than you speak. Ask clarifying questions. Show through your interest that you value people’s thoughts, ideas, and suggestions. 

And then do what you do best: Respond thoughtfully.

2. Engage with introverted employees on their terms. 

Create opportunities for introverted employees to offer ideas, suggestions, and especially constructive criticism one-on-one rather than only in group meetings. Ask questions that require thought and consideration by email rather than in person, and let employees respond in writing as well.

You also want to give introverted employees plenty of time to prepare. While extroverts typically thrive when put on the spot, introverts appreciate time to think, consider, and evaluate.

When I was a manufacturing supervisor, I would often burst into another experienced supervisor’s office, breathlessly describe my latest and greatest plan, ask for his feedback, and walk away disappointed. He always said no.

In time I realized the problem wasn’t my ideas; it was my approach. My colleague needed time to think. Absent that, he defaulted to “no.” 

One day I tried a different method. I said, “I have [this] idea. Give it some thought. Think about whether it makes sense, what I might have missed, what might make it work even better, and I’ll get back with you in a few days.”

From then on, he supported my ideas, and he even found ways to make them even better.

Why? I played to his strengths and took into consideration how he worked best.

3. Leverage the power of thinking.

Introverts tend to be more motivated by long-term goals that require consideration, planning, discipline, and sustained effort. 

Use that to your advantage. Actively block off time to think, weigh options, brainstorm new approaches, and sift through data to turn insight into action.

As an introvert, you need time to ponder and reflect. Make sure you give yourself the time to do one of the things you do best. 

4. Actively seek different opinions—but stay true to your vision.

We’ve all been taught to seek other opinions, to harness the power of multiple perspectives.

Introverts do that naturally by asking thoughtful, probing questions.

But it’s also possible to allow “group think” to blunt the power of new ideas, especially those that are unusual or unpopular. 

As Jeff Bezos says:

“Anytime you do something big, that’s disruptive… there will be at least two kinds of critics. There will be well-meaning critics who genuinely misunderstand what you are doing or genuinely have a different opinion. And there will be the self-interested critics who have a vested interest in not liking what you are doing, and they will have reason to misunderstand.

And you have to be willing to ignore both types of critics. You listen to them because you want to see, always testing, is it possible they are right? But if you [believe in your idea], then you just stay heads down, stay focused, and you build out your vision.”

Seek different opinions. But also trust in your own analysis—because, as an introvert, one of your greatest strengths is assessing, analyzing, evaluating, and making thoughtful decisions.

Which is a great way to describe an effective leader.

Updated: February 6, 2020

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.

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