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Extroverts and Introverts: How to Get the Best Work from Both

A chalkboard with the words introvert and extroverted written on it.
Extroverts and introverts each bring their own contributions to the workforce. It's important that managers understand and accommodate their employees' different approaches so that they can help all employees do their best work.

"We all tend to work better with those that have a more similar personality to our own," said Doug Upchurch, global learning innovation strategist at Insights. The company, with headquarters in Dundee, Scotland and Austin, is a provider of people development programs. "But it's just as important to be able to work well with someone who is less similar to you."

The question, he added, is, "How can leaders help their team [members] advance their personal development to make sure everyone is working well together?"

Performance and retention issues can develop when managers don't value employees whose work style is different than their own. In meetings, for example, extroverts tend to think aloud while introverts tend to prefer to quietly work through a problem or idea before voicing it. This can make extroverted employees appear more engaged or enthusiastic about a project.

Upchurch recalled a company whose sales and marketing department was experiencing significant turnover. The team's top salespeople were made up almost equally of people who were extroverts and introverts. However, management in that department was promoting only the extroverts. The result: the overlooked introverts were leaving the company.

"They didn't feel like there was a place for them" at the organization, Upchurch said.

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Leaders should ask themselves who they encourage to lead or to speak out at meetings, Upchurch noted. An EY paper, Outsmarting Our Brains: Overcoming Hidden Biases to Harness Diversity's True Potential, noted that there is a "persistent assumption" in business that favors people who speak up in meetings, regarding them as more knowledgeable than participants who are quieter.

Global financial services firm EY and RBC (Royal Bank of Canada) hosted nearly 300 corporate and community leaders at a diversity in leadership event in 2013 and produced a paper on their findings afterward. The intent was to explore the implications of hidden biases in today's work environment.

"The onus is on us as leaders to ensure we accommodate different styles. If golf is the default method of building client relationships, what are the implications if the best person for the account doesn't play? Similarly, our businesses tend to reward extroverts, leaving introverts shut out of opportunities. We need to be open-minded about the ways in which we engage with others," said Jay Hutchison, who was managing partner, tax, at EY at the time he was quoted in the paper.

Research has shown that in a typical six-person meeting, two people do more than 60 percent of the talking, and that the problem worsens as the size of the group increases, according to Leigh Thompson. She is the J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

One method of getting ideas from more people—including those who are more introverted— during a meeting is to use brainwriting, in which people jot down their ideas on individual cards that are shared among the group. Thompson calls this the "simultaneous written generation of ideas." This is not to be confused with brainstorming.

"The whole point [of brainwriting] is when you're writing ideas, no one can interrupt you, no one can block your thoughts, and then those can be shared later with the other team members," Thompson said in a video on the topic on the university's website. She advised participants to submit their ideas but not sign their names if the group will be voting on which ideas to use. This way, the exercise does not become a popularity contest.

Pay Attention to Clues

"Working together ... [is] about recognizing that people have different interpersonal preferences, and if you take time to identify and recognize them and are willing to adjust your communication styles to better connect with others, you will be on the way to a healthier and more productive workplace," wrote Erin Wortham, people engagement manager at Insights, in a company blog post.

It's not always apparent who the introverts are, according to a Harvard Business Review article, "because they are practiced at acting like extroverts" in the workplace even though they may find it draining.

The labels "extrovert" and "introvert" are not necessarily an indication of how socially adept a person may be but a preference in how they work, Upchurch agreed.

Pay attention to clues such as whether employees tend to work by themselves or in small groups and if they are more reflective in their approach to work. He advised leaders to create collaborative work teams that provide people an opportunity to work in both large groups, which are more suited to extroverts, and small discussion teams. Additionally, if your organization has an open-floor plan, consider providing areas where more introverted employees can have a quiet place to work.

Also, ask employees what, in the work environment, motivates and suppresses their performance and what the leader can do within his or her sphere of influence to help them perform better.

"We have to let our people shine, but we also need to stretch them," Upchurch said. "We want to create an environment where people get enough of what feeds them and [which requires] a little bit of adjustment to help them stretch."

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