Working with introverts (like me) can be frustrating for people who are naturally outgoing. But it’s also challenging for us introverts to work with extroverted personalities. I often find myself thinking, “How do these people think so fast?” or, “How did they know exactly what to say on the spot?”
I am a true introvert. I prefer listening to talking. I become overwhelmed by large crowds. I have few friends, but they are close ones. I don’t mind being alone, even at movies or restaurants. I’m happiest curled up at home on a couch with a cat (or three), possibly with my boyfriend.
I’ve learned to adapt because I’ve had to. What many employers don’t realize, though, is that it’s in their best interest to adapt as well. Introverts get hired for a reason: We’ve got expertise and ideas to contribute. The catch is we express our contributions differently than, say, your typical MBA.
Here are five ways bosses can get the best out of introverts.
How to Help Introverted Employees Shine
1. Help introverts feel prepared for meetings.
“People who prefer quieter, more minimally stimulating environments.” That is how Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, defines introverts.
I am unable to think or speak clearly on the spot, especially in stimulating environments. When pressured to do so, I become extremely anxious. Like many introverts, I need a little time to think things through before responding or sharing ideas.
Vague, agenda-less meeting invitations strike terror into my heart. And really, they should scare anyone. How’s a person supposed to know if the meeting will be valuable, or if it’s thirty minutes of your time that you’ll never get back?
If there’s background reading for the meeting, I greatly appreciate when it’s shared in advance so I have time to digest it. The Amazon method of providing a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting for some pre-discussion reading and note-taking is a good alternative. Without time to absorb the context, introverts likely feel ambushed.
In meeting invites, include a note saying what decisions will be made and/or what will be discussed. Share any docs in advance. Everyone will walk in better prepared — especially the introverts.
2. Let introverts voice their thoughts in writing.
During meetings, I find it unsettling to have to interrupt the more talkative people in the room, so I usually don’t. (This may be due as much to my destructively polite Southern upbringing as it is to my introversion.) Instead, I will send written feedback following the meeting, or perhaps schedule a follow-up meeting with a smaller group so my questions and input can be heard.
Not every introvert will do this. And it’s certainly less time-efficient. Reserve time during and at the end of the meeting for questions and thoughts from those who haven’t been heard yet. You don’t need to call on the quieter people, because that puts them on the spot. Just hold space for them and trust they’ll speak up if they have something to add.
Or, invite them to email you with their thoughts. Introverts often feel more comfortable expressing themselves in writing than speaking to a large group.
3. Give introverts time and space to process.
In meetings, or anytime I’m with people and my battery is draining, I find it hard to articulate my thoughts verbally. I value having space to think and using that backspace button to make corrections (if only there was one in real life!).
Managers who have said things like, “Why don’t you think about it and come back to me with a plan?” have been my most effective allies. Not only are they giving me time to consider my actions, but I’m also able to sort out everything that’s going on in my brain and lay it out in a more clear way than when I’m asked to throw out ideas on the spot. I feel more confident in my proposals, having had time to refine them, and my managers can understand them better than a spur-of-the-moment stream of consciousness.
Life doesn’t always work that way. You won’t always be able to give your introverted employee that space and time. But when you can, it means a lot to us.
4. Plan social events around an activity.
Social events are taxing. My modus operandi tends to be “The Girl at the Party Who Spends Her Whole Time With the Pets” or “She Who Takes the Thanksgiving Feast and Runs Away With It to the Kitchen.” I don’t want to not participate. No way will I let my introversion outweigh my desire for turkey. But I need to decompress for a few minutes here and there.
In a work context, I love it when the focus of social events is something other than just socializing. That feels scary and forced. My mind has nothing to focus on other than, “What amazingly witty piece of conversation am I supposed to change people’s lives with next?”
Instead, create the event around a class, movie, video game (yes please!), bowling, or anything of that nature. It will put the introverts at ease, and the conversation can flow naturally. If there needs to be any conversation at all, that is.
5. Celebrate the strengths of introverts.
I’ll never forget a moment during our sorority’s rush planning (introvert in a sorority — that’s a whole different story). The consultant working with us said, “I always look to Season. If she’s on board, then I know we’re good to go.” To be regarded as thoughtful — as someone who wouldn’t gloss over concerns for the sake of just getting on with it — was really cool.
It’s easy for introverts to feel like they are lesser human beings for not having the right words at the right time. Or for needing a few minutes to think. Or for feeling like the world is moving past you at a breakneck speed while you’re still trying to figure out how to plug two monitors into one laptop.
Instead, I encourage those who manage my fellow introverts to celebrate them being able to slow down and think in a fast-paced world. Their quietness does not signal disengagement. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Introverts truly listen to people to allow them to be heard instead of just waiting for their turn to speak.
Instead of being disappointed that they’re not the first ones to speak, acknowledge that they’re likely using this time to understand the intricacies of problems and coming up with a meticulously thought-out solution.
You may need to help introverts with being over-prepared, thinking too much, or being excited and anxious — give them space and encouragement and they will shine. Feel lucky that you have someone on your team who people look to for understanding, the way our sorority consultant looked to me.
Introverts are often perceived as slow, antisocial beings. We ask too many questions and need too much time to think. These tendencies are also what make introverts valuable, in society and at work. When you’re tackling a problem as a group, it helps to have different ways of thinking on the team because you’ll understand the problem better and end up with more potential solutions — so make sure to invite introverts to the table too.
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