If you’re an introvert, you know a few things about yourself: You prefer to be alone or with one or two others. Being surrounded by a lot of people or attending a big party is not exactly your cup of tea. And you’re often preoccupied with your internal thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
And, you’re very well aware that this translates to the workplace as well. It’s not that you don’t get along with others or work well with them; rather, you prefer to operate solo or in small, productive groups of like-minded people. You have opinions, but you’re not always quick to share them. If your boss is speaking to your team about an upcoming project that your department’s heading, you may turn the new information over in your mind for a little while before you have anything to articulate aloud.
While there’s obviously nothing inherently wrong with this description—just think what the world would be if we were all the opposite of this—when it comes to excelling and shining in your career, it can pose some problems. Because outspoken individuals who are always ready to contribute ideas or suggestions are heard first, sometimes their eagerness overshadow a more contemplative person who needs time to process information.
If your team’s taken to working closely together on certain assignments and your way is to take a backseat in the discussions and put your all into the parts you get to work on alone, you might not be perceived as being a go-getter or someone with a lot of drive and ambition. It’s unfortunate but true that many companies and leaders value the gregarious among us, the people who, though they may not be thinking before they’re speaking, are, nonetheless, speaking.
But the answer isn’t for you to morph into someone you’re not, a nearly impossible task anyway. As an introvert, you’ve simply got to figure out how to rise and succeed in a world that might not be built for you. Don’t let the enthusiastic, fast-talking person in the room overshadow you.
Here are three ways that introverts can make their mark in a workplace.
1. Communicate Your Way—and the Other Way
You’re in a meeting, and the leader asks the group if anyone has thoughts on how the company can meet the goal he’s just laid out. He’s looking for concrete ideas, actionable tactics, and he’s ready to hear what the team gathered has to say. Let’s assume this was a meeting with an agenda and that you didn’t enter the room lacking knowledge about what was to come. As long as you have a kernel of understanding about what the meeting’s going to entail, you can prepare yourself in advance.
Preparation is key. It may take a few minutes of your day or week to jot down notes or do some brief research on the topic that the marketing manager has stated will be the focus of the meeting, but think of how much better you’ll feel when you’re not only able to nod in understanding, but you’re also able to respond to the host as soon as you’re given a chance. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking suggests speaking aloud to yourself. If you do this, you’ll probably find it easier to express your thoughts among others. Sure, one of your outgoing co-workers might open her mouth first, so go ahead and let her. It’ll give you a few more minutes to gather your thoughts.
Regardless, if you follow with a thoughtful answer, idea, or opinion, you’ll be remembered as much as the first person to contribute to the conversation. If you’re struggling to formulate coherent, logical sentences in your head (I get it; I’m better when I can retreat and write my thoughts out a little later), ask a question instead.
And once you’ve added something to the conversation, you can always go back and email further thoughts or a more detailed explanation of what you started to say later. It’s OK to rely on written communication if that’s what you’re most comfortable with, but it probably won’t win you any points, particularly if your office is run by mostly extroverts. This is about thriving in an extroverted setting—not just surviving. It’s to your advantage if you’re as prepared as possible and if you go the extra step of coaxing out the ideas moving around in your head.
2. Build an Alliance
You know you’re not the only introvert in the office, right? You alone don’t struggle with working alongside those who are always eager to take on tasks or boast of their accomplishments. Have you noticed how your fellow introverted colleagues get on? Chances are, they’ve built trust with others, those both like them and those that are on the opposite end of the personality spectrum.
While some extroverts might be highly competitive, it’s not true to suggest that the enthusiastic folks in your office are that way because they want to hold you down or back. They speak up and out because that’s their way. It’s almost like a reflex. They shine in big social settings; it gives them energy. It’s not about taking away from your contributions or accomplishments, so you know what you’ve got to do to thrive in this environment that feels like it feeds off of these people? Befriend them. Build trust. Form an alliance.
It’s not as though you’re a hermit who never wants to talk to anyone ever. Make an effort to get to know people you work with—and when you have one-on-one conversations that are work-related, make a point to express your ideas. Maybe this is also the time you do a little bragging. As long as it’s not coming out of left field, your comments (“My proposal was approved by the CEO and is the one we’re going to be using forward with new clients,” you say when your desk neighbor brings up the design of the proposal) will elevate you in the eyes of your co-workers, particularly the outspoken ones.
Prove in quiet conversations the value you’re bringing to the department, and wait: The next time there’s a meeting and you start to say something (because you went prepared, right?), your co-worker will go to bat for you, or at least nod in encouragement and offer support if he gets and agrees with what you’re presenting. Where introverts may fall short in networking, they shine in building long-lasting relationships. By building an alliance at the office, you also build your reputation, and if that is solid and stellar, you’ll continue pushing ahead.
3. Display Your Skills—With Pride
The first part of this is identifying exactly what your skills are. If you feel the most motivated and productive when you’re working by yourself, recognize and be proud of your independence, autonomy, self-discipline, and thoroughness. Introversion, Muse writer, Hope Bordeaux explains, “like extroversion, is not only a natural leadership trait—it’s an immensely valuable one.”
A leader isn’t defined by how much he speaks. Be your own person and your own leader. Don’t downplay your strengths just because you think they’re not as important as the other personality type, and don’t force yourself to work in the cafe area of the office where your co-workers are constantly tossing ideas around if your preference is to sit at your desk with your headphones on. You’re a skilled watcher, observer, reader of situations; it’d be a deep disservice to not embrace these qualities.
Find ways to show off the fact that you do your best work alone. Maybe you’re actually more productive as a result of your solo-work tendencies. If you work from home one day a week, use the time by yourself to recharge so that when you are in the office you can contribute to the conversation more than you would if you were always there in the thick of things. Nurture your introvert needs and recognize what an asset your listening skills are or the fact that your memory is sharp precisely because you’re good at paying attention.
In spite of all the sound advice available for introverts, I can’t help wondering if the real issue isn’t in management: Shouldn’t more companies and senior-level people be aware of the varying personalities in the workplace and stop being so committed to extroverts, which is how it seems at a good many organizations?
One CEO I spoke with, Steve Sims Chief Design Officer at Badgeville, a gamification company, has taken a keen interest in understanding the personalities that work for him and his company. Sims is of the opinion that yes, management can help. Introverts can thrive and shine as a result of CEOs respecting the trait and the skills and strengths that are attached to many an introvert, but he personally sees it as a very long-term project.
Unfortunately, he’s just one C-level executive who understands the need to better understand introverts in the workplace—not all leaders know how to foster your creativity and help you shine. Thus, in the event that your company leaders don’t quite know how to relate to you, you’re better off knowing how you can be accepted, understood, and embraced in what is, more often than not, an extroverted world.