Even though introverts loathe being the center of attention, they shouldn’t be a complete mystery to their peers and managers.
Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking is a best seller. There are blogs about introversion, articles about working with and managing introverted team members, and people who know their Myers-Briggs type indicator (hi, fellow ISFJ’s!).
Still, the modern workplace feels like it caters to the extroverted. Look no further than the way office architecture has literally broken down the walls, leaving no quiet spaces for reenergizing. Stand-ups, scrums, and communal brainstorming rule the day.
If this work flow makes total sense to you, it can be hard to understand a teammate who needs more alone time or who thrives on solo work.
So here’s a handy cheat sheet, full of lessons I wish I could’ve handed out (quietly and in writing, of course) to my former co-workers.
1. We Like to Take Time to Think
I can’t count how many times I’ve been in a brainstorming session, anxiously trying to come up with fully coherent ideas fast, and then working up to actually saying them. Meanwhile, I’m nervous my co-workers or team lead will think I’m not participating because I’ve spent the first half of the meeting sitting in silence.
The truth is, we process information differently. In An In-Depth Look at How Introverts Think, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, explains that introverts notice a change before an extrovert, but the extrovert will be the first to act in response. She uses a phone as an example: The introvert will be the first to process that it’s ringing, but the extrovert will be the first to react and pick it up.
So, when you ask for ideas in a meeting, all of the colleagues are processing the information in their own time, but the extroverts will be able to prepare—and share—their thoughts more quickly. The solution is not to call on a quiet teammate, rushing him or he isn’t going to help. Instead, give everyone some time, and instead of running with the first idea, wait a few minutes and ask if there are anymore.
2. We Need Personal Space (But We’re Not Anti-Social)
There’s a persistent myth about introverts that we’re socially awkward and hate people, but that’s not true! Many of us love spending time with people and engaging in social situations.
The real difference is that an extrovert will get recharged by a social situation, and feel depleted after too much time alone. We’re the opposite: Spending time with people drains our battery, and we need solitude to reenergize.
Additionally, even just being around a lot of people takes more effort. So spending time “alone” in a coffee shop or with headphones on in an open office can still feel like an exhausting social situation.
Be attentive to how your co-worker would like to plan his or her day. If there’s a major work event that evening, it’s best not to schedule two meetings after lunch as well. And don’t take it personally if he declines a lunch invite so he has energy for a networking function after work.
3. We’d Rather Avoid the Phone
The phone is the bane of our existence—with its sudden ringing and insistence on forcing interaction that we can’t keep on our terms. Many of us prefer to write and communicate via email or text, so we can craft our responses in our own time.
A lot of us have even come up with coping mechanisms or just dulled our instinctive dislike of the phone through repetition. But if never hurts to be sensitive to a co-worker’s communication preferences.
So, do your phone-averse colleagues a favor and use the chat app or email to reach out on a regular basis.
4. We Can Be Leaders, Too
So, we might not share our ideas first, or want back-to-back meetings in the same day, but we make excellent leaders!
Those same tendencies make us really good at providing space for discussion and gathering consensus when everyone’s views are heard. We also have the right dose of humility and tend to stay pretty darn unruffled no matter what emotional or literal storm rages around us.
Don’t overlook a quieter co-worker for team leadership positions or as an unofficial role model. Challenge yourself and broaden your view of what qualities someone in charge should possess.
5. We’re All Different
Now that you know all the secrets, bear this in mind as well: Introversion is a scale, just like any other personality-related indicator. Some people find it impossible to function in an open office environment while others are so close to the center or well-adapted that you’d probably guess they were ambiverts or extroverts.
In other words, while it’s worthwhile to be thoughtful and consider different work styles, you’re not going to improve your work relationships through stereotyping. The best way to know if you could be more accommodating is to simply ask your co-worker about his or her preferences—much like you would with anyone else!
Next time you find yourself noticing the co-worker who’s sitting quietly by herself, think about all the ways having diverse personality types on your team makes it more creative and supportive. (And if you want to share those ideas with her, please choose text or email.)