A version of this post first appeared on The Quill.
Although there’s a lot of talk about extroverts and introverts in the workplace, there’s not much information about how to work effectively with introverts. Let’s start by re-iterating that the labels extrovert and introvert are not about levels of shyness, instead they refer to how people renew their energy. As a matter of fact, their brains are even wired differently.
Extroverts are energized when they interact with others. On the other hand, introverts are drained by too many interactions at once. So, to get the best out of your teams at work, you have to understand how to take advantage of the strengths introverts bring to their work. Full disclosure: I’m an extrovert, my business partner and children are all introverts, as was my late husband.
Introverts can be intimidating!
It’s important to realize that introverts can be just as intimidating as extroverts. They are quiet. It’s hard to know what they’re thinking or thinking about. In a world of chatter and loud voices speaking quickly, introverts are islands of quiet. If you’re an extrovert, it can be easy to be put off by their silence. You’re looking for input and comments – now! And they just won’t talk.
In the work environment, getting to know an introvert can be tricky. The emphasis is on speed and getting information out in front of people, skipping lunch, having coded conversations, and expending lots of energy on the people you work with. It makes it hard to find a quiet time to connect.
Perhaps you can ask the introvert(s) on your team to have a quick cup of coffee in the morning, before they’ve expended their energy on participating in meetings and interactions with people all morning. Pick one person to have coffee with. Ask them the usual questions, but do not interrupt them when they’re speaking. I’ve found that when I interrupt one of my introverted friends when they’re speaking, they frequently shut down.
Then, use what you’ve learned about them in your work encounters. Start a conversation using something that you know they’re interested in and you’ll both feel connected.
Build in opportunities to speak
Which brings up the number one thing to remember about introverts: many of them are deep thinkers. While the extroverts in the room are processing loudly and quickly, frequently commandeering the whole discussion, the introverts are thinking deeply, delving into opportunities and outcomes other people might never see. They’re not uninterested. They’re not cold. They’re not (necessarily) thinking they’re better than everyone else in the room. They’re just thinking.
So, the best teammates and managers know to build in opportunities for the introverts on the team to speak. Before a meeting, you can take the time to identify an area that your introverted co-worker is working on. You can let them know that you’ll be seeking their input about that area or question. That way, the introverted co-worker won’t be caught off-guard – which can lead to shut down.
When co-workers take the time to acknowledge the introverts in their midst and seek out their opinions, they are frequently rewarded with well thought out observations and suggestions. Introverts by their very nature take time to process what they hear before they speak. And, again, make sure they are not interrupted when speaking. Actually, that’s a good rule for everyone. Instead of interrupting with questions, have everyone in the meeting jot down their questions and come back to them.
Then, after meetings, particularly brainstorming sessions, make sure you follow-up with the people who didn’t seem to have anything to contribute. Take your knowledge about how an introvert acts and figure out if any of those people might be introverts.
Introverts need time to process
Don’t approach them immediately after the meeting and ask what they’re thinking. They’re probably exhausted from the energy they expended just being in the room for brainstorming! Instead, send a follow-up email to get their input. You validate their process by letting them know you understand they like to mull things over before they contribute. Sending an email instead of dropping by their cube shows that you respect how they work.
If you feel you have to follow up with the introverts face-to-face after a meeting, try to wait at least an hour or so. Give them an opportunity to re-charge and get their thoughts organized. Send an email saying you’d like to talk face-to-face at a certain time so they’re not taken by surprise. And, when you do meet, listen closely. Listen quietly. Don’t interrupt. And reap the benefits of having a deep thinker on your team.
Social Commitments for Work?
Finally, be sensitive about creating work/social commitments for the introverts on your team. It’s so easy to forget about introverts when you’re planning a quasi-social event with mandatory attendance. Instead of mandating attendance, perhaps try saying you expect everyone to put in an appearance, but you don’t expect them to stay for the whole event.
If that won’t work in your environment, then talk privately to your co-workers who are introverts and let them know the minimum time they need to stay at the event. Even go so far as to tell them what they need to accomplish. If they need to greet certain people, tell them so they can plan out their evening to include breaks.
Taking the time to understand how introverts process and get their energy and educating the extroverts on the team about their process, makes your team tighter. When we learn to understand and respect each other’s personalities and needs, our teams function better and become more productive. Every time.