Between open floor plans, team lunches, and mandatory meetings, most workplaces are set up to favor extroverts — creating a lot of stress for introverts.
So how do we introverts navigate the external pressures (and stimuli!) of the workplace? And how do we create space for the alone time that makes us our most productive, fulfilled selves? Below, we’ll walk through the four most stressful work situations for introverts, plus a few tips to stay sane while navigating them.
The Most Stressful Work Situations for Introverts
1. Networking events and work parties
We can all relate to Seinfeld’s Elaine when she tells Jerry, “I’ll go if I don’t have to talk.” If you start feeling talked-out around hour two of your office holiday party or happy hour, you’re not alone.
How can you feel more at ease? Try arriving with a planned exit strategy. When you feel less like you have to stay, you might find that you’re more likely to want to stay.
On his site, investor Hunter Walk (a self-described anxious introvert) explains how he handles large events:
“Before I’d quietly slip away whenever I felt the first tingles of ‘uh I don’t want to be here anymore.’ Now I recognize that impulse, honor it, exhale and see if I’m cool staying another 30 minutes. Once I do this check-in, I’m totally ok bouncing after 30 if that’s still the way I’m feeling, but often I’ll end up hanging out much longer without even knowing it.”
Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer has a similar strategy. In an interview with Vogue magazine, she admits that she always has an urge to hide at parties. So before a party starts, she promises herself that she can leave at a certain preset time. “I will literally look at my watch and say, ‘You can’t leave until time x,’ ” she says. “ ‘And if you’re still having a terrible time at time x, you can leave.’”
2. Working with extroverted colleagues and bosses
If your boss is an extrovert, you might be familiar with MBWA, or “Management by Wandering Around.”
Next time your boss ambles by with an unprompted question (we’re guessing you won’t have to wait long), try saying, “I’m happy to give you an immediate response, but I’ll be able to give you a better response if I can take some time to think about it, then get back to you.”
Here are a few additional strategies you can suggest to your boss or team to ensure you (and your fellow introverts) have the time and space to do good work:
- Heads down time: Try splitting the day between collaborative and heads down time. During heads down time, each team member has explicit permission to find a quiet place in the office and work by themselves.
- The 5-second rule: Ask extroverts to leave five seconds of silence in a conversation before they jump in. Introverts tend to perform better when they have a longer processing time before speaking.
- Walking meetings: As Dr. Jennifer Kahnweiler explains in her book The Genius of Opposites, a walk makes it easier for introverts to talk out their ideas, since they don’t have to make constant eye contact. When they are talking or searching for words, introverts tend to look away from others to reduce visual stimuli so their brains are not as flooded with input.
- Meeting rituals: Since most meetings are inherently set up for extroverted communication, introverts need to find rituals that make them feel comfortable joining in. According to author Brad Stone, before every meeting at Amazon, Jeff Bezos requires employees to write a six-page narrative detailing their points. The meeting begins in silence as everyone reads the document. Bezos does this because he believes it both encourages critical thinking and gives introverts time for reflection before the discussion begins.
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3. Work travel or retreats
When Mollie is traveling for work and spends 24/7 with colleagues or clients, she often gets an introvert hangover. Shawna Courter, who coined the phrase on Introvert, Dear, describes an introvert hangover as:
“A pretty terrible thing to experience. It starts with an actual physical reaction to overstimulation. Your ears might ring, your eyes start to blur, and you feel like you’re going to hyperventilate. Maybe your palms sweat. And then your mind feels like it kind of shuts down, building barriers around itself as if you had been driving on a wide open road, and now you’re suddenly driving in a narrow tunnel. All you want is to be at home, alone, where it’s quiet.”
Introverts have a more limited source of social energy than extroverts. Once introverts run out of those reserves, the only thing that helps is retreating to be alone. What extroverts don’t always understand is that this is an actual physical sensation — not just a slight preference.
Mollie’s hangover cure is either to go for a long walk alone or lie in the fetal position on her couch and watch mindless TV, preferably a British show. Liz recovers by retreating into her minimalist, silent, white-walled apartment that offers almost no sensory stimulation.
But the best offense is a good defense. To prevent introvert hangovers, Mollie will often tell her teammates that she needs to schedule time at the end of travel days for decompression. If you know you’ll be with colleagues all day (e.g. at a conference or retreat), try to block off a few hours at the end of each day to step away from the group.
You can also figure out which parts of the day you need to attend and which are not mandatory, or talk to your manager about scheduling breaks (or if you’re a manager, schedule those breaks!).
The first company-wide retreat that Genius, a music media company, hosted was a four-day, nonstop work-and-be-together offsite that left Liz exhausted. She talked to the company’s leaders, who made sure to give employees enough downtime to recharge on the second retreat.
4. Phone calls
You knew it was coming: the dreaded phone call. For introverts, phone calls mean awkward pauses, anxiously trying not to speak at the same time as the other person, and lots and lots of small talk. Receiving an unexpected phone call can also jolt us out of a period of productive creativity. Even a short conversation can derail our entire thought process.
The best way to prevent phone fatigue is to pre-arrange calls. This ensures you’ll have plenty of uninterrupted time to concentrate.
This essay is excerpted from Liz and Mollie’s book, No Hard Feelings: Emotions At Work (And How They Help You Succeed). Order it on Amazon here, or subscribe to their monthly newsletter featuring helpful articles, research, and comics.
Do you ever struggle to know what to say?
As an introvert, you actually have the ability to be an amazing conversationalist — even if you’re quiet and hate small talk. To learn how, we recommend this online course from our partner Michaela Chung. Click here to check out the Introvert Conversation Genius course.