Four Tips for Getting the Most from Your Introverted Team Members

Jun 11, 2014
14 Min Read

Not everyone you work with is an extrovert, even if the corporate culture rewards people for being outgoing. If your team includes people who are far more quiet and inward-looking—and it almost certainly does—you may find it useful to learn how to draw the best from them, and to make them feel most comfortable.

Imagine that your team included Albert Einstein, J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates, and Mahatma Ghandi. You’d probably want to hear what they had to say, right? You’d also want to make sure those team members flourish, so that you get the most from their potential. Yet, in today’s typical company, those things are unlikely. As Susan Cain made famous in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, few aspects of today’s culture favor the introvert, and this is especially true in corporate culture.

Studies show that introverts make up one-third to one-half of the population. Yet most offices are set up exclusively with extroverts in mind, a fact that becomes immediately obvious when you look at traits associated with the two personality types.

  • Extroverts gravitate toward groups and constant action, and tend to think out loud. They are recharged by the external world and from being around other people. They represent the Western ideal of showy confidence and “men of action,” often moving into that action before they’ve formed a concrete strategy.
  • In contrast, introverts typically dislike noise, interruptions, and big group settings. They instead prefer quiet solitude, time to think before speaking (or acting), and building relationships and trust one-on-one. Introverts recharge with deep dives into their inner landscape to research ideas, focus deeply on work, or delve into a book.

Of course, the labels extroversion and introversion lie on a continuum; few people are purely one or the other. Moreover, it’s a rare U.S.-born introvert who hasn’t developed at least some skills to navigate the perpetually extroverted workplace. They have to. In a culture where the typical meeting resembles a competition for loudest-and-most-talkative, where the space is open and desks are practically touching, and where turbocharged confidence, charisma, and sociability is the gold standard, introverts often feel they have adjust who they are to “pass.”

But they do so at a price. And that price has ramifications for the company as well. So if you want to get the best from your people—even the deep, quiet types—here are four tips for getting the best from your introverted team members.

Recognize that introverted team members can make powerful contributions, and be conscious of any personal biases you may harbor.

Let’s go back to our imaginary team of history’s heavyweights. Undoubtedly, you would recognize the potential of each of those team member’s contributions. But if you’re an extrovert, you may feel differently in your real day-to-day life, where you’re harried and are dealing with your own pressures. As an extrovert, you may sometimes feel it would simply be easier having a team of all extroverts.

Yet, beyond issues of diversity, remember that many of the most important and creative figures in history have been introverts. As Cain wrote, our culture has come to be more and more biased in favor of extroverts, which means that creating some “bridges” for your introverts are necessary.

Moreover, your introverts are most likely to be your detailed and perfectionistic contributors, the ones who dot the is and cross the ts, points out Nancy Ancowitz, business communication coach and author of Self-Promotion for Introverts. “I ask you,” she says, “What company doesn’t need that?” For example, Ancowitz points out that while the salespeople might be the shiny charmers, a company also depends highly on the behind-the-scenes marketing folks analyzing the competitive landscape to find out your target audience and how to sell to them.

As a case in point of what introverts can bring to the team, Ancowitz relays a story of an introverted and perfectionistic graphic designer she worked with. “His efforts help the company get the business more quickly,” she says. “It’s more efficient because he’s got these gorgeous presentations and his images wow the client, so there’s no need for additional meetings.” This is not to say that extroverts can’t be stellar, but they are more likely to think in terms of “good enough.”

Of course, there is a negative side to an introvert’s tendency to try for perfection: The process can take longer. So in cases where the 80% solution is better, tell your introvert so, and define what that means in concrete terms.

Provide space for privacy and uninterrupted thought.

The more open an office setting is and the less privacy and escape from noise it offers, Ancowitz points out, the more difficult your introverted employee will find it. “If you have an office without walls, then chances are you’re going to get a lot of interruptions during the day and it’s harder to focus,” she says.

Research backs up this assertion. In one study of 42,000 U.S. office workers in 303 office buildings, all types of employees’ assessed the indoor environmental quality of enclosed private offices as superior to open-plan layouts on nearly every measure, “particularly in acoustics, privacy, and the proxemics issues.” Moreover, write the authors, the “benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.”

In Cain’s book and in her subsequent articles, she delved into other research on the subject, which also supports this view. In The Rise of the New Groupthink, Cain wrote, “Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure, and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu, and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.”

Ancowitz recommends that you provide dedicated quiet space for people to escape the noise and frenetic energy at least part of the time. There, an employee can dive into research or other concentrated work without a worry for interruptions. Other solutions include encouraging employees to bring work to some other setting they find productive or encouraging them to wear noise-blocking headphones. Another option is creating team-wide (or companywide) systems that people can use to show others they are not open to interruptions, such as cards employees place on their desk with agreed-upon meanings (such as the word “working,” to signify no interruptions on one side and “available” to indicate “open to socializing or other impromptu meetings” on the other). In addition, you can simply encourage those who need a quiet break to take one.

All of these solutions work best if they are officially sanctioned. Be careful of saying one thing and allowing the unsaid norms to say another thing entirely.

Get to know your introverts one-on-one.

Building a relationship with your introverted team members is crucial, says Ancowitz. It is in those one-on-one meetings held over time where the two of you build trust, loyalty, and a strong relationship.

Since introverts tend to be private, such meetings create a setting for your introverted employee to become comfortable sharing information about himself. In these meetings, you can also find out what achievements he is making. Since introverts may find self-promotion harder, this is key. It can be far too easy both for you and for the introverted team member to overlook accomplishments.

Moreover, in one-on-one meetings you can find out what “carrots” motivate your employee. Understanding her goals helps you motivate her and to enable the employee’s best self to shine and best serve the project.  You should make it as easy as possible for the employee to succeed.  This could be as simple as providing her with the right collaboration and task management software to do her job efficiently.  Are your introverts seeking a bigger paycheck or a better title? Do they feel overlooked and need a kind word, or are they almost entirely self-motivated but in need of some other mark of recognition? Of course, you want to foster the highest level of productivity among all your workers, but the motivations may be more obvious with extroverted employees.

Run your meetings with focus and an agenda, and have pre-assigned tasks.

Meetings characterized by boisterousness, impromptu agendas, rapid-fire brainstorming, constant interruptions, or a sense that people are talking simply to hear themselves talk can shut down your introverted employees. “While an extrovert is comfortable coming up with ideas out loud, the introvert needs to send her thoughts to her internal editor first,” says Ancowitz. Introverts are less likely to share their “drafts.”

As mentioned, introverts are most creative when they have an opportunity to get quiet and go deep. So one way to encourage an introvert to share is to give her notice beforehand—not only what the agenda items are, but if there’s something in particular (ideas, etc.) you’d like her to bring to the meeting.

Sharing meeting agenda items with team members is also a key point in running effective meetings generally (for extroverts as well), as is establishing and sharing a focus and keeping team members to the parameters of the meeting. For example, consider giving each person a certain number of minutes to speak.

In contrast to the typical extrovert, an introvert is also more likely to be quieter, speak more slowly, and not project as much warmth, i.e., be harder to read. This last aspect can cause his communication to be taken the wrong way. The introvert may not be smiling—but it may be because he’s thinking. So these ideas, besides helping to keep meetings efficient and productive, helps give space for the introvert to contribute and share in a way that’s comfortable.

The extroverts make all the noise—and thus get listened to more often. However, by applying a few of these techniques with your introverted team members, you may be more successful at bringing out the best in each person.

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