Finding the Leader in the Introvert

By Dana Wilkie Oct 29, 2015
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BOSTON—He’s so quiet in meetings that he seems part of the furniture. He never volunteers to lead projects. Ask him for an honest opinion, and he looks shell-shocked.

Is this a problem employee? Someone not committed to your company’s goals? A passive creature lacking the drive and energy necessary to get the job done?

He may just be an introvert, and managers have long given this sort of person short shrift in the workplace, said two diversity experts at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2015 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition.

“Increasingly, organizations are coming to recognize the contributions that introverts can make,” said Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength (Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., 2013), during an Oct. 26 conference session titled “Creating an Introvert-Friendly Work Culture.”

Introverts, she said, tend to:

  • Be contemplative, thoughtful and quiet.
  • Be good listeners and observers.
  • Think first and talk later.
  • Have low-key emotional expressions.
  • Be private.
  • Be humble.
  • Be energized by time alone.
  • Thrive in small groups or in one-on-one interactions.

Despite the assets associated with this group, introverts—particularly in fast-paced, hard-driving organizations—can be seen by managers as bored, negative, low-energy, slow and unmotivated, Kahnweiler said.

Self-described introverts include actresses Vanessa Williams and Emma Watson, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela, according to Kahnweiler.

Introverts “don’t realize they’re among many greats,” she continued. “They’re just now waking up to their voice. When you think about what we’re losing in our companies by not tapping into those folks who don’t speak up at our meetings, it’s a tremendous amount of lost ideas, creativity and profit.”

Stephanie Roemer is diversity director for Freddie Mac, a federal home loan mortgage corporation. The organization, she said, is chock-full of introverted financial analysts who were “feeling not heard … and not knowing how to get ahead.”

So Roemer set about helping these introverts to understand themselves, and helping managers to understand the value introverts bring to the organization. She had employees take personality assessments, created small-group discussions and leadership courses for introverts, and hosted a “Genius of Opposites” seminar where introverts were asked to invite one extroverted colleague.

“Extroverted skills are more valued; it’s the world we live in,” Roemer said. “Sometimes it’s hard to navigate the corporate culture that values the extrovert. You need tools and tips to help establish yourself in the organization if you’re looking to be on the rise.”

Other strategies that Kahnweiler and Roemer have used to help introverts, and their managers, recognize the value of this group include:

  • Inviting successful introverts to the workplace to talk about their experiences.
  • Encouraging introverts—who are typically reluctant to toot their own horns—to talk about one accomplishment each week.
  • Introducing introverts to introverted mentors.
  • Adjusting workspaces to accommodate introverts. For instance, Kahnweiler said, open office spaces—as opposed to cubicles or offices—can be unsettling for the more-private introvert. She once arranged a holiday party with a small, living-room-like space with low lighting to encourage intimate conversations, and it was a hit with the organization’s introverts, she said.
  • Ensuring that the recruiting and interviewing processes are free of bias against introverts. For instance, Kahnweiler said, don’t assume “that lack of eye contact or a quiet demeanor means they lack skills to do the job.”
  • Letting others know that when introverts speak up, it’s important not to interrupt them, and to pay attention to what they say.

“Introverts can make the most effective influencers and leaders when they stop trying to be extroverts and rely on their strengths,” Kahnweiler said.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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