How to Bring out the Best in Introverts

By Susan RoAne May 22, 2017
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​Carl Jung, the founder of analytic psychology, is acknowledged as the first person to use the terms "introvert" and "extrovert."  He identified people as one or the other based on how they re-energized. In other words, if a person replenishes his energy by group activity, he is an extrovert. If a person needs to be alone and quiet to re-energize, then he is an introvert.  

In the workplace, behavior tends to be the determining factor as to whether someone is deemed an introvert or extrovert, which can be a mistake.  The conversant, energetic, talkative storyteller who enjoys center stage is assumed to be an extrovert, which isn't necessarily true if this outgoing person needs to be alone to get re-energized.

Why does it matter? Because every workplace is a mosaic of people who have different talents, personality styles, strengths and weaknesses, and each person processes information differently. Since a critical goal of HR is to help employees do their best work, and to help managers encourage that effort in a manner that respects and recognizes employee differences and preferences, it matters a lot.  

Susan Cain's book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Crown Publishing Group, 2012), is often cited as a positive guide for introverts to understand their strengths, preferences and, most important, their value in the workplace.  A side benefit to the book is that it explores how to include, identify, manage and engage introverts and extroverts. 

Here are some basic traits often associated with extroverted and introverted work styles:

Extroverts:

  • Exhibit energy.
  • Speak with enthusiasm.
  • Think while they speak.
  • Make small talk and "big" talk.
  • Manage multi-tasking.
  • Are easily distracted.
  • Work well in teams.

Introverts:

  • Are reserved.
  • Are soft-spoken.
  • Think before they speak.
  • Avoid small talk; prefer in-depth conversation.
  • Focus on single tasks.
  • Require quiet time.
  • Prefer to work alone. 

Of course, we must be careful to avoid generalizing or stereotyping or finding one style preferable over the other. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Since workers who talk a lot can drown out the quieter ones, this article focuses on ways to help introverted employees shine too.

Don't Make Assumptions

"In the past, there were people who came into our department who we just thought of as quiet, and there were others who were talkative," said Henry Powell, an HR generalist in San Francisco. "We are a very diverse department and knew that some of the personality styles may have been [due to] cultural [differences], which we respected. We never labeled anyone an introvert or extrovert."

Over the years, he said, "I found that as people became more acclimated and comfortable in the department and in their roles, they became more confident and more open." To help with that evolution, he said, the HR team encourages the company's managers to embrace four steps:

  1. Talk to all of your team members one-on-one frequently in an environment that each person finds comfortable and encourage them to speak freely.
  2. Learn each employee's concerns and provide necessary support.
  3. Give credit in team e-mails to people who may be reluctant to tout their accomplishments themselves.
  4. In meetings, publicly acknowledge an accomplishment or contribution of those who aren't inclined to do so themselves. "To a one, each person has sought me out after the meeting and thanked me when I've done that," Powell said.

Follow a Three-Pronged Approach

A compensation analyst with a Texas company, Debbie (who asked SHRM Online not to use her last name) has worked in HR for three decades. Although she identifies as an introvert, she has developed an office persona that she says helps her overcome her shyness. 

"It's like putting on an overcoat; a disguise of sorts.  When I go to an event—and start to feel more comfortable with the group—I've learned to become more talkative."

Debbie has supervised many introverts through the years, and she offers three steps to helping them succeed at work:

  1. Speak to the introverts on your team before or after meetings to hear the feedback they didn't share with the group.
  2. Give team members time to prepare for meetings. Tell them the topic beforehand and conduct team "round robin" discussions where everyone is expected to participate.
  3. Avoid singling them out by calling on them to speak in front of the group.

"As a leader, I know that to accommodate my team, I pass out the printed documents ahead of meetings so that everyone can read, assess and process the issues," Debbie said. "That prepares them to participate."

In the manufacturing sector, introverted behavior emerges in many ways, said Pat Roy, vice president of HR at Acme Industries in Chicago. The engineers she works with are introverts and less likely to communicate on items they think are "little things." 

"I learned that engineers have a real need for data and that the format I use to share information is very important to my team, so I try to present subjective information in an objective format," she said. So, she rarely sends Word docs. Instead, she uses PowerPoint slide decks with bullet points—not sentences—and adds tables to share data. She also creates Excel spreadsheets whenever possible.

"One of my engineers taught me when to create spreadsheets," Roy said. "One day he took an HR form we were using and turned it into an Excel spreadsheet.  Message received!"

By observing and absorbing how her team internalizes and distills information, Roy said, she learned how to accommodate them.  Part of that effort included a key step: asking them how they prefer to receive and share information, she said.

For HR professionals who manage introverts, remember also that giving them the ability to take a break from the noise, energy and activity in any office, meeting, gathering or conference is essential. Create opportunities for them to step outside and take time to decompress and re-energize.

By understanding the unique needs of both introverted and extroverted employees, HR can assist managers in motivating and communicating most successfully with their staffs, which goes a long way toward boosting employee retention.

Susan RoAne is an author and speaker on improving communication and networking. She is the author of How to Work a Room, 25th Anniversary Edition: The Ultimate Guide to Making Lasting Connections--In Person and Online (William Morrow, 1998). You can find her at www.susanroane.com, susan@susanroane.com or www.facebook.com/SusanRoAneBiz/.  Follow her @susanroane. 


Reminders:

  • Recognize that there are different personality styles but that most people fall into the middle ground; not the extremes.
  • Don't assume that quieter people have nothing to say. (See "How Not to Manage Introverts," by Marla Gottshalk, Ph.D., on the Huffington Post site).
  • Don't assume introverts don't like to work on teams.
  • Don't assume extroverts don't like to work alone.
  • Don't assume that quieter people are listening. (They could be daydreaming.)
  • Don't assume the talker isn't listening. (They are and may remember exactly what you said and when you said it).
  • Avoid labeling people.
  • Ask people how they prefer to receive communications.
  • Know that no personality type is better than the others.
  • Give people time to process information.
  • Allow for quiet time and a quiet space. Both introverts and extroverts need it.
  • Don't ignore extroverts by only accommodating the work and personality styles of introverts.
  • Facilitate meetings so that the extroverts do not dominate.
  • Spend time talking to team members one-on-one. It builds relationships.

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