As I faked extroversion, I climbed the corporate ladder, but my stress soared and my health degraded. Here’s what I wish I knew.
Armed with a finance degree, I never actually held a finance role but worked in various supply and trading roles at Shell Oil for 30 years. As a kid growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, I can’t say I always wanted to work in the oil patch, but in 1988, I was excited to learn the oil business. My first roles were analytical and logistical, moving oil and gasoline from point A to B.
However, as my performance warranted, I rose into roles of greater responsibility and impact. Eventually, by the mid-90s, I was promoted to commercial trading roles. While the tasks were exciting and had the potential to provide significant financial impact for Shell, the jobs also relied upon increasing levels of engagement — with coworkers, managers, and especially with industry cohorts.
Though I treasured many of those relationships, the level of conflict and the call for thinking on my feet exhausted me daily. During my tenure, I certainly did learn more about who I was… I realized I’m an introvert. But I found it hard to arm myself with the tools I needed to use my quiet nature to my advantage.
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Faking Extroversion Came at a High Cost
Instead, I embraced a “fake it ’til you make it” approach. Through grit, determination, and a high personal cost, I climbed the corporate ladder. However, my stress level went through the roof. As a result, my health degraded, and I sought destructive means of coping with the stress, through binge eating and drinking.
A consequence was my family basically got the “scraps” from me once I dragged myself through the front door most weeknights and collapsed on the couch.
To be clear, I don’t blame Shell. Honestly, I found Shell to be a caring employer in almost every way: for health and safety, for the environment, and for people and the staff in particular. Largely, my struggles were my own. Rather than feeling like an outsider, constantly out of my comfort zone, how could I embrace my introversion and find contentment?
Shell — like almost every other large company — didn’t realize that the difference between employee personalities, specifically introverts and extroverts, was a dynamic that needed to be understood and reconciled to tap the full strength of its workforce.
Survival Tips for Introverted Leaders
In retirement, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect, learn, and recognize some of my actions that worked at times, as well as those that I should have changed. Now I can pass on these lessons to other introverts so they have a better chance of succeeding in corporate America, without the trauma, stress, and pain I endured.
Frankly, I think some of my tips will apply to extroverts as well. Besides, by reading this article, it certainly would help the more outgoing among us to better understand their introverted coworkers.
1. Embrace your introversion.
You’re not a “broken extrovert” as some people claim. Introverts, we must move from shame to confidence. Confidence often comes from self-awareness and then acceptance. Learn about your introversion (read Quiet and blogs like this one). Consider how you can use planning and downtime to lean on your strengths. As an introvert, you bring thoughtfulness, balance, creativity, organization, care, and determination to the workplace. You must start seeing yourself as a valuable person whose voice must be heard. “Quiet” shouldn’t mean “silent” on issues that are important to you.
2. Don’t wing it.
A calendar and detailed to-do lists are your friends. As introverts, thinking on our feet is not typically our strength. Schedule meetings rather than ad hoc business conversations. Ask others to schedule some time on your calendar. Book regular time with your manager and staff. Then develop an agenda and get prepared for those meetings. This prep work doesn’t have to be extensive, but planning your objectives, considering where others are coming from, and anticipating any points of conflict will help you actively participate and get your voice in the room.
3. Build downtime into your busy day.
Be sure to create downtime during the day. Take a walk. Have lunch by yourself. You might feel self-conscious during these times, but it really is okay. These are your moments of solitude. You may use the time to prep for an important meeting or a staff discussion, or just to read and escape for a few minutes. This time will re-energize you for the rest of the day.
4. Hire the right people.
As an introverted leader, perhaps your most critical role is hiring staff for your team. Be involved. Get others from the team involved. Be picky. Assess the critical roles for your team and ensure you have staff that can meet these objectives. You, as the manager, should not be expected to have all these skills yourself. No one does.
Round out the team with diversity (in every sense of the word). For me, I wanted at least one person with team/industry experience, at least one with deep technical expertise, and most importantly, at least one extroverted “people person” who could strike up conversations and develop connections. Building strong teams includes filling the gaps.
5. Avoid the crowd.
When possible, meet with people in small groups rather than large audiences, which can be overwhelming for introverts. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with your manager and staff. These may have a regular agenda or just ad hoc to see what’s on everyone’s mind. Also, aim for small customer engagements over lunch or dinner rather than big industry events that may feel awkward. These are great opportunities to lean on your introverted style and build those critical relationships.
6. Attend large events strategically.
For me, going to these large gatherings and trying to interject myself into conversations and then extricate myself later was horribly demoralizing. Thus, on the same lines as #5, rationalize which cocktail parties or industry gatherings you truly must attend.
Come in with a strategy. Who do you want/need to meet, and what topics do you want to cover? Bring a buddy to wander the floor with you. Once you complete your agenda, you may go. To be candid, you won’t be missed, and you won’t be missing anything critical by leaving at your leisure.
7. Listen to your body.
Our bodies are honest reflections of the stress we hold. Whether we realize or want to acknowledge the stress in our life, if the pressure is becoming insurmountable, it will show.
At the peak of my stress in London, I had Sciatica down my left leg, Shingles, back pain, Rosacea (face rashes), Seborrheic Dermatitis (scalp redness), and gained 30 pounds in two years. My doctors told me what I didn’t want to admit or deal with — my stress level was too high — and the physical repercussions would only recede once I relieved the source of the stress. Not surprisingly, all these have cleared up without meds since I retired.
8. Find healthy ways to cope with stress.
Work can be fun and gratifying. But it is work, after all. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, find ways to decompress and manage your stress in a healthy way.
Before I had heard of introversion, I found over-eating and alcohol-binging. I used these loyal escapes throughout much of my career. Only late in my career was I able to replace these with a dose of exercise, downtime, reading, and quality family time as part of a healthy work/life balance.
9. Find a role that’s right for you.
I’m all for stretching one’s comfort zone. But if doing so makes your stress level untenable, and healthy coping skills still don’t help, perhaps it’s time to find a different role that best leverages your unique and wonderful skills.
As a teen, I loved journalism — the writing, solitude, and creativity. However, I was steered into business for more “practical” and financial reasons. I had many great moments in my 30-year career and am thankful for the relationships I developed and the support I received. I’m also proud of our teams and what we accomplished. But I still wonder if a different role would have produced greater work/life balance, personal happiness, and the self-esteem that I searched for throughout much of my adult life.
Do you ever struggle to know what to say?
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10. Create an Introvert Alliance.
At many companies, including Shell, alliances have formed to provide support for the staff to help them navigate the challenges on their path to reach their potential (for example, Hispanic, women’s, LGBTQ groups, etc.). These alliances not only help in managing stress at work, but also in navigating the corporate ladder and in educating those who don’t necessarily fit the demographics of the group.
Workplaces should have introvert groups as well, for the same purpose. Especially for younger, newer staff, such coaching and mentoring could make a great difference in providing a safe place for introverts to share their concerns and gather tips.
Perhaps most importantly, with the support of leadership, these meetings can help change the culture of organizations. Roughly 50% of people are introverts. Just consider the value teams may reap when they provide space for introverts to use the nine tips above with confidence and bring their voice to the table.
Staff and leaders alike, I implore you to advocate management to create an Introvert’s Alliance with introverts and extroverts at all levels. Imagine how empowered, engaged, and gratified your staff can be.