In American business culture, we often favor extroversion. Yet the latest research suggests introverts make up one-third to one-half of the U.S. population. Author Susan Cain’s recent book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking, shines a positive light on us more modest individuals.
In fact, Cain suggests that their traits can actually be strengths — personally and professionally.
Are You an Introvert, Extrovert or Ambivert?
The term introvert is often used inaccurately. Introversion does not necessarily equate to shy, though some introverts are shy — as are some extroverts. Instead, Cain defines introverts as “men of contemplation,” who may enjoy the company of others, but are also comfortable with solitude. They are sensitive, contemplative, modest and calm, and spend a lot of time thinking and reflecting. They can enjoy social occasions, but crave restorative time afterwards. They do their best work alone in quiet places since they are easily overstimulated by noise, lights and action.
In contrast, extroverts are “men of action.” They gain energy from other people, are sociable, excitable and light-hearted. Unlike introverts, extroverts can tolerate a higher level of noise and work well collaboratively. And if neither of these temperaments resonate with you strongly, you may be an ambivert, someone who sits somewhere in the middle of this wide spectrum.
Many career paths are more suitable for extroverts than introverts. Traditional MBA programs favor class participation and group work. Managers look for team players when hiring.
But jobs like game development, programming, design and writing require periods of intense focus and concentration. Being available to answer the phone, respond to email and attend meetings at all times can be highly disruptive to these more introverted professions. When you’re interrupted or distracted, research suggests it can take an average of 25 minutes to return to whatever you were working on. Imagine what open-plan offices and lack of privacy do to an introvert.
How to Balance Extroversion and Introversion in Your Workplace
I believe that more teams would thrive with a combination of extroverted and introverted temperaments. I’m an introvert myself, and I’m sure it would be no surprise to Cain that I run a solo business. While some may find the work lonely, I work best on my own. But at one of my first jobs in public relations, my boss gave me an informal evaluation over lunch. She started by saying that the work I was producing was exemplary — and then she lamented that I wasn’t “getting excited” enough in the office, a comment that left me both baffled and hurt.
Realizing that my lack of “excitement” was exactly what allowed me to hole up in my office and produce exemplary creative work was a huge relief. I only wish more managers understood this and embraced it instead of trying to get everyone to be more outgoing and sociable.
Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, Quiet emphasizes that there are strengths that come with your temperament. You can also minimize the impact of the so-called weaknesses with self-knowledge.
Here are a few tips for introverts (and their bosses) to flourish in the workplace:
- Reduce noise. Shut the door to your office for stretches at a time, or wear noise-cancelling headphones. You’ll produce better work in a more satisfying environment.
- Set some rules for your interactions with colleagues and collaborators. If you have the luxury of doing so, let people know that you prefer email rather than phone conversations. Work in a conference room or coffee shop where you can’t be interrupted. Schedule regular meetings into your calendar to limit the need for spontaneous ones.
- Recognize your need for rest. After a big presentation, give yourself permission to restore your energy levels. This is essential for introverted workers to stay on top of their game. While it is important to bond with your work peers outside of the office, focus on quality over quantity.
- Let your temperament shape your career path. Since introverts flourish in quiet spaces with minimal interaction, careers such as graphic design, writing, programming and accountancy are all good choices.
The best tip of all is to commit to understanding more about the strengths associated with introversion. You’ll focus more on what you do best, and stress less about the differences between you and the louder voices who get more airplay at meetings. Introverts are observant, so they’ll often ask poignant and important questions, and see a different angle on something. Managers can respect these quiet strengths by asking questions and allowing everyone to speak during meetings. By understanding individual differences in a team, everyone wins.
I’ll leave the final words to the world’s most powerful introvert, Gandhi: “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”