Introverts can be an organisation’s hidden weapon but to realise their true value, we need to re-think our work spaces.
What do JK Rowling, Barack Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein have in common? (1) They are all introverts and (2) they would each have a tough time working in the contemporary office environment which privileges open plan spaces, group work, informal interaction between colleagues and noise.
Extroverts love the buzz of group work. They love being part of a crowd and get incredible amounts of energy from bouncing ideas around. Introverts, on the other hand, are a bit different. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking describes introverts as people who like a ‘minimally stimulating environment’. Introverts like quiet concentration: they like to think before they speak and for the most part. they tend to listen rather than speak in a group.
Introverts get a bad press. Very often they are considered to be anti-social, apathetic, too quiet, not a ‘team player’. Their solitude and need for quiet is often misunderstood in a workplace that privileges extroverted skills such as public speaking.
The contemporary workplace is very often organised around the needs of extroverts. We are led to believe that working in open plan environments facilitates creativity and increases interaction between coworkers. Communication is improved (just shout across the office if you need to catch someone’s attention); it is more economical (just move the desks and you have a new office set-up).
Introverts need quiet spaces in which to think. Constant noise, chatter, phones and the pinging of email creates distractions that reduce work output and increase stress and burnout in talented people. Introverts aren’t ill or suffering from some kind of social anxiety, it’s just the way they are wired. Introverts need alone time so that solitary lunch you see them taking isn’t an anti-social move. It’s a necessary private decompression from the noise of the workplace.
What do introverts bring to the workplace that differs from their extroverted colleagues?
- Very often they will remain silent during a meeting and then at the last minute they will come in with a profound contribution to the discussion. Introverts need time to think before they speak;
- Introverts are good researchers and strategisers. Their capacity to sit back and watch what is going on gives them an excellent standpoint from which to plan;
- Introverts are excellent listeners;
- Introverts enjoy working on solo projects. Working for a long period on a project is an ideal opportunity for introverts to shine. Introverts rarely miss deadlines; and
- Introverts can ‘act into’ an extroverted role when required; they can network, make presentations and perform many of the more outward facing roles required in the contemporary workplace.
By organising the contemporary workplace around the needs of extroverts, we are losing the talent, creativity and wisdom of our introverted colleagues. So, how do we accommodate the different needs of introverts and extroverts while getting the job done?
- In meetings, allocate time for people to speak and for people to listen. (The listening piece is challenging for extroverts). That way, there is time for everyone and introverts are not spoken over;
- Not every task needs to be a group task. Create a balance between individually-focused tasks and group tasks. That way you are garnering the strength of introverts and extroverts;
- Finally, don’t always take the view of the loudest person in the room. Very often the best decisions come from sleeping on it. Sometimes introverts go away, give serious consideration to the discussion, and return the next day with an insightful solution.
A win-win scenario
By creating an environment in which you accommodate introverts and extroverts working at their best, you are enhancing the outcome for your organisation, your team and the individuals within it.
This article first appeared in Accountancy Ireland