There are some striking fundamental differences in the way that introverts and extroverts function in the workplace.
Extroverts thrive on human interaction. This means that it’s not uncommon for them to seek moments throughout the work day to catch up with coworkers and share what’s going on in their personal lives.
Introverts, on the other hand, may be more likely to take comfort in the (relative) privacy of their desks and look forward to getting away for some quiet moments during the lunch break. These differences in personality, along with the common expectation that workers be able to collaborate in person, can lead to some serious challenges for us introverts.
Picture this: you’re sitting around a table in a meeting room with 10 other colleagues. Your manager asks everyone for their input on a company issue you’re not familiar with. While most of your colleagues are calling out ideas, your heart begins to pound. Suddenly, the room feels 10 degrees warmer. You don’t know what to say. Your palms are sweaty. How is everyone coming up with ideas so quickly?! After a few minutes of racking your brain, you may have an idea, but it’s far from fully formed. By the time you’re ready to force yourself to speak — to put something out there — the discussion has already moved on to the next topic.
Introverts Need More Time to Process
Spontaneous discussions, like the one described above, make it impossible for introverts to think, process, and develop thoughtful, meaningful responses in the rapid-fire way that’s demanded of them. It has to do with how their brains are wired — see the science here.
As an introvert myself, I often need time and space to come up good ideas. In fact, my best ideas usually come to me when I’m in the shower or lying in bed at night — in those moments when my mind is relaxed and free to run uninhibited. Away from the busy, noisy world, I’m better able to sort through a wide variety of possibilities and outcomes.
One of my high school English teachers used to say that if you can’t think of an answer to a question on a test, come back to it later because your brain will continue to think about it subconsciously. I feel this is true for me in many areas of my life. Sometimes I just can’t come up with a satisfactory option so I move on with my day and then, later on — aha! — suddenly the answer becomes clear, and it’s brilliant too.
When I’m presented with a problem at work and asked to provide my feedback right away, I lack the opportunity to fully digest the issue and consider the various outcomes, challenges, and opportunities involved. Sure, I’ll give you an answer — but it won’t be my best one.
Our Differences Shouldn’t Hinder Us
When introverts are in meetings with extroverts, they may feel a little “slow.” The extroverts’ brains are firing off ideas left and right, and sometimes you can’t keep up with them! But I’ve realized it’s important to recognize our differences in the workplace and take steps to ensure that everyone is able to fully participate in meetings.
Here’s how we can make meetings more introvert-friendly:
1. Allow employees to provide feedback via email.
One of the hurdles I’ve faced as an introvert in a traditional 9-5 office is successfully making my voice heard and getting my thoughts and opinions out there. Some people (extroverts!) actually enjoy providing their feedback verbally and don’t require much time to prepare. Others like to sit down and compose their thoughts at their own pace. For an introvert, this may be the more productive option.
If you need to collect feedback in real-time, like at a meeting or over the phone, tell participants in advance what you’ll be asking of them. This will give the introverts an opportunity to think ahead and gather their best ideas so they’re not caught off guard and scrambling for an answer later.
2. When requesting input during a meeting, make eye contact.
There have been times in meetings when I had something I really wanted to say, but I struggled to find the “right” moment to jump in. When the discussion is lively, with people freely sharing ideas one after the other, it can be difficult or uncomfortable for the introvert to cut in. They may have an amazing idea they want to share, but every time they open their mouth, another voice beats them to it. This can be exhausting when it happens several times in a row.
This is why I appreciate it when the meeting facilitator asks a question and then makes eye contact with each person at the table, giving everyone a clear opportunity to speak, if they wish. Now, I don’t mean that you should stare and make people feel pressured to respond. Just a quick, 2-3 second glance before moving on to the next person should do it. It will help you form a connection with each participant and remind them that you value their input.
3. “Any last thoughts?”
Before concluding the meeting, it’s a good idea to ask one more time if anyone has any questions or ideas. The introverts in the group may still be processing the discussion items, and additional ideas may have come to them over the course of the meeting. If there’s time left over, give people the opportunity to revisit items on the agenda. You may end up with even more great feedback.
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With Introverts, Patience Is Key
An introvert may not have the answer right away. They may need to get back to you. Please don’t discount what they have to say. Organizations can benefit from how deeply introverts examine issues. If you give them the time and space they need to think, you may be surprised by the thoughtful, unique responses they give you.