What I’ve Learned About Being a Quiet Introvert in an ‘Extroverted’ Workplace

An introvert at a work meeting

As an introvert, I’ve been judged for my quiet, “standoffish” personality, which doesn’t always fit the workplace culture.

For the past 10 years, I have worked as a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) professional, a job I love. My responsibilities include training, planning/hosting events, presenting reports and ideas to leadership, and more. My career allows me the creative freedom to design meaningful projects that align with the organization’s goals. 

But…

Being an introvert while working in an environment that requires public speaking has presented significant challenges for me throughout my career. There were moments when I felt stagnant and often blamed myself for being unable to be more outspoken, social, and likable. As an introvert, I had to put in twice as much effort to grow professionally, overcoming obstacles such as anxiety management, dealing with judgment from others, and finding strategies that work for me. 

The Challenge of Being an Introvert With Anxiety

Suffice it to say, being a social butterfly and comfortable with public speaking would make my job significantly easier. But as an introvert with anxiety, this is a challenge. 

Public speaking makes me so nervous that I forget what I want to say, regardless of how well-prepared I am. My voice trembles, I appear and sound nervous, and my thoughts become chaotic. 

And let’s not get started on work meetings — I often feel like I’m just blending into the furniture. Occasionally, someone recognizes that I might have something to say and will ask for my thoughts. But why can’t I speak up until someone asks for my opinion?

Social events follow a similar pattern: I tend to fade into the background until someone begins a conversation with me. Engaging with people and maintaining a conversation can be difficult, and afterward, I tend to overthink my interactions, worrying if I said something wrong or left a bad impression. 

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The Highs and Lows of Being an Introvert in the Workplace

Navigating the workplace as an introvert has its highs and lows. When you have a “quieter” personality like I have, people find reasons to criticize or dislike you. It’s strange that in some environments, those who require the least attention receive the most criticism. 

I have experienced accusations and inquiries regarding my knowledge of Black culture and history, and once, someone even questioned my education. I thought I had proven myself by creating diverse programming, sharing experiences about being a minority, and leading discussions about Black hair in the workplace (even before the anti-discrimination C.R.O.W.N. Act — “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”).

However, the work I did never seemed to compensate for my quiet personality. This would cause me to doubt my own intelligence and suitability for these spaces. 

Criticism about my introverted personality differs from feedback regarding my communication and presentation skills. Receiving feedback on workplace training was tough, but it was useful. I received feedback about not speaking loudly enough, finding training unengaging, reading directly from slides, or deeming the training unhelpful. Although this feedback stung, ultimately it helped me become a better trainer and presenter.   

As an introvert, I’ve been judged for my “standoffish,” quiet, and shy temperament, which can be perceived as rude, and which doesn’t always fit the workplace culture. People have described me as stuck-up, cold, dismissive, and awkward. I’ve always known I am somewhat awkward and will only be certain people’s cup of tea. Still, I strive to be relatable, lead, and listen with empathy and emotional intelligence so people feel comfortable interacting with me. However, it takes time for individuals to recognize these traits and realize their assumptions about me were false. On the positive side, I do receive compliments about my calming personality.    

I have also learned that the energy I encounter in certain spaces can be incredibly anxiety-inducing and potentially make me physically sick; sometimes I get nauseous when the energy is not good. 

I also recognize that I work better with familiar groups, which is ideal, but I understand that growth comes from stepping out of my comfort zone

I’m Not Just an Introvert; I Am Also a Black Woman

Before anyone sees me as an introvert, they see a Black woman — and that’s where the initial judgment often begins, whether it is intentional or unintentional. This unintentional, called unconscious or implicit bias, plays a role in the judgment and lack of visibility I have experienced. 

It’s natural for people to gravitate toward those who share commonalities, such as work styles, ethnicity/race, backgrounds, and experiences. I am also guilty of this tendency, but I acknowledge it and have become mindful of my behavior over the years. I also try not to make assumptions.  

People tend to connect more with people that are like them. This is known as affinity bias, or the “like-me effect,” and it is harmful because it excludes others and prevents welcoming diversity in your teams or workplaces. 

Not all racial and gender groups are the same. We show up differently, we have different personalities, and it’s essential to understand and recognize this fact. Our perspectives and life experiences vary. Some of my experiences are shaped by being an introvert. Yet workplace culture seems to love outspoken and charismatic individuals, regardless of what kind of work they produce.

However, I’ve learned that in DEI spaces, it is not always necessary to have the loudest, most outspoken individuals present. There is room for silent disrupters and change agents — that’s the essence of inclusivity in this work. We introverts, too, can be a force to be reckoned with.

Do you ever struggle to know what to say?

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Growing in My Career as an Introvert 

Despite the challenges of being an introvert in the workplace, I have achieved steady growth in my career. I’ve built relationships by working closely with leadership, allowing them to get to know my personality. I’ve completed numerous professional development programs to strengthen my training and presentation skills. I have sought advice from colleagues on becoming more comfortable during presentations. (In fact, one of my former bosses suggested power poses before I presented, which I still find helpful.)

Family and friends occasionally provide little pep talks before presentations, too, offering humor and motivation. Adopting a more positive mindset has made a significant difference. In addition, therapy has played a crucial role in recognizing my behaviors and cultivating a more positive outlook.  

Networking and maintaining business relationships is another challenge I faced. I’ve worked through this challenge by bringing a friend or colleague as my “hype person” to help break the ice when meeting new people; many of my friends are great communicators who know how to work the room. 

I’ve also learned to observe others’ social cues and body language, in order to avoid appearing unapproachable. A friend once advised me to be mindful of my facial expressions, because I sometimes give off the impression that I don’t want to be bothered. Now I strive to appear more welcoming… but only when I genuinely feel like engaging with people. 

Still, I recognize that my social meter can run out at times, so I make space for that and give myself grace when I leave an event early or don’t have the energy to show up. That’s part of my self-care: recognizing when I’m too far outside my comfort zone and need to step back. I also communicate my boundaries with colleagues, asking for their understanding that my energy levels may fluctuate in the workplace. 

Learning Not to Overcompensate for Being Quiet

A significant change I’ve made is to stop overcompensating for being quiet and shy by taking on extra projects to prove my worth. This approach only led to being taken advantage of, becoming the go-to person when others didn’t feel like doing their work. I remind myself that I am worthy of being in the spaces I occupy. While some have noticed my work throughout my career, others have not; I am constantly learning and striving for improvement. 

As an introvert, I have embraced what works best for me. My progress may be slower due to life’s obstacles, but I will continue to make an impact in my field of work. I move at my own pace and prioritize my comfort. This approach has allowed me to cultivate patience and maintain peace. Patience and peace have taken me a long way in my career development. 

My fellow introverts, I’d love to hear what your experiences at work have been like. Feel free to comment below!

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