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Teamwork is vital to the modern workplace, but it should be balanced with solo time, especially for introverted employees.
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I was eating a sandwich in the break room of a company where I did some consulting work when I glanced up and saw it: a poster depicting a crew of young, energetic rowers paddling their boat across the water in perfect synchronicity. You probably know the one. The headline reads “There’s no ‘I’ in teamwork!”
Well, maybe there should be—at least some of the time. Over the past 12 years, I have been studying and writing about introverts at work. Introverts, who get their energy from within, make up between 40 percent and 60 percent of our workforce. For them, time alone can be critical to recharging and contributing to the creative process.
Don’t get me wrong. When employees collaborate to brainstorm and feed off each other’s energy, great things can happen. In fact, my research has found that teams of “genius opposites”—that is, those that balance introverts and extroverts—get exponentially more accomplished together than their individual members would alone.
Teams allow us to build key relationships and influence change in our organizations. Back in the 1980s, corporate leaders jumped on the teams-produce-results bandwagon, and the group approach proliferated. Today, your supervisor is likely your “team leader,” your workgroup is your “team,” and your workstation is probably open and arranged so you can sit in close proximity to your team. Job candidates are often vetted by all members of a team, and meetings are a daily occurrence.
But in our zeal to foster collaboration, have we have forgotten the value of people doing great work by themselves? I believe we have. That’s why I advocate for a more balanced approach that fosters both individual and group work.
Why Teamwork Alone Doesn’t Work
The reality is that, no matter how team-oriented our cultures are, individuals will always have specific roles that require solo contributions. Our overly team- and meeting-focused work culture doesn’t always acknowledge that. For example, I worked in one organization where there was strong peer pressure for teams to meet over coffee each morning. I eventually begged out of the group but noticed that my colleagues who didn’t do so had to play catch-up later. They felt obligated to socialize so that they would be seen as “team players.”
Moreover, when all brainstorming happens in meetings and conference calls, the ideas of quieter contributors may never surface. Extroverts, who get their energy from connecting with others, tend to think aloud and thus will often be the first to offer ideas and populate the white board at meetings. It’s not unusual for them to interject themselves into discussions as new thoughts come to mind. Introverts, on the other hand, are more reflective by nature. They may get interrupted or be less likely to contribute thoughts in real time. Instead, they’re apt to come up with ideas on their own after the meeting is over.
Giving workers sufficient solitude allows them to tap into their unique skills and experience to solve problems and cultivate new ideas. Preparation is a key success strategy for any meeting, coaching session or process-improvement initiative.
But in order for people to plan adequately—or to digest information afterward—they need to pause.
Paradoxically, having time alone can also improve interactions with others. If you are always engaging with people, it is difficult to carefully consider their perspectives. And for introverts, solitude infuses them with the energy they need to approach their work relationships with enthusiasm.
Creativity, too, can flourish during quiet moments. The right half of our brains—the side that is more experimental, innovative and visionary—works at its fullest capacity when people are in a relaxed state. For many individuals, that occurs when they are alone. One of my colleagues shared how his best ideas emerge when he is taking walks. Such “eureka” moments have been key to many discoveries in science and technology, including those coming out of Silicon Valley today.
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Building a Better Balance
So how can we create work environments that balance individual time with teamwork? Here are a few ideas:
Take control of your calendar. Is it necessary to attend every meeting? Know your expected role in advance and how you can contribute. Maybe it’s time to decline some meetings that have little value or to ask someone to go in your place.
When you’re the one planning meetings, show that you respect everyone’s time by developing agendas, setting ground rules—such as “no interrupting”—and sticking to schedules.
Use technology. Group projects needn’t be accomplished by meetings alone. Integrating chat tools such as Slack and Trello, or file-sharing applications like Google Docs, gives your team time for both individual thinking and collaboration.
Create action steps for individuals. Not every project needs everyone’s input throughout its life cycle—and, in fact, an overreliance on consensus can often weaken the quality of the final product or deliverable. Suggest action steps that each person can accomplish on their own. If discussion is needed, reach out to people individually or form short-term task forces.
Value each person’s input. Engage introverts during meetings. Try “brainwriting”—an introvert-friendly idea-generation technique in which individuals write down concepts and share them anonymously. It values reflective input and ensures that everyone’s contribution is captured.
Consider teams of two. Be creative in how you connect with people and solve problems. Having a “walking meeting” with a colleague might be just the solution to a sticky problem. This approach gives introverts time to think and connect one-on-one—which they prefer to larger-group interactions—while extroverts get the opportunity to talk out their ideas and think on their feet (literally).
Teams are here to stay. But as business leaders increasingly recognize the strengths of introverts, I hope we will pause and consider how we can adjust our cultures to value individuals as well as groups. I believe we will all reap the rewards of making that shift.
Jennifer Kahnweiler is a speaker, trainer, coach and expert on introverted leaders. She is the author of several books, including The Introverted Leader, the second edition of which will be released this month by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
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