For years, American businesses emphasized extrovert-friendly workplaces: Cubicles, open spaces and team brainstorming all push more social time among colleagues. More recently, however, companies are recognizing their strongest employees may be some of the quietest.
TED speaker Susan Cain galvanized this conversation with her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.” As she put it, solitude is a catalyst for innovation. It’s also important to differentiate an introvert from someone who is shy. Shy people don’t like being the center of attention. And while some introverts (and extroverts) are shy, being an introvert simply means preferring to think about things quietly rather than thinking about them out loud.
Fortunately, there are solid ways to help bring the best out of your introvert employees and colleagues.
The first step is to always hold a space for them, particularly during team meetings or large social discussions. Extroverts think out loud — literally — as speaking is how they process their abstract ideas and make them real. Introverts are often the opposite, quietly working on their ideas until they find the best words to describe them. Try creating a structure, such as a regular check in, to make sure everyone gets an opportunity to talk. The quietest person in the room may have the key to your business success — but may be drowned out by the more talkative people at the table.
Second, consider turning social obligations to social options. Requiring everyone to work at the same office table together every morning may energize extroverts, since they like being around people, but introverts may be drained from all the social time and actually be more productive working in solitude or in very small groups. If daily social time is required, then consider striking a balance by using remote office tools. The recent telecommuting trend is a boon for introverts, as it allows them to contribute to the whole while still maintaining their space.
On that front, implementing technology can help keep introverts productive while maintaining their solitude. Phone calls and particularly in-person conversations can take lots of energy. Texting, email or office chat are less intense for introverts, yet are effective communication platforms for the majority of work questions and feedback. It also allows introverts to stay within their work flow without abruptly switching gears to be social.
Finally, focus on the conversations introverts facilitate rather than the discussions they start. By leaning toward silence, introverts can be strong listeners and even better question askers. Their emphasis is on thinking about what’s being said instead of what they’re going to say next, giving them an objective, often strategic, perspective on the discussion. Their inquisitiveness also helps them guide and validate those who are speaking, which helps others shine and bring their ideas to light.
To support introverts in your business, consider how they’re actually quietly supporting other more-talkative colleagues, deeply thinking about the conversations being held, and often cultivating strategic ideas in solitude rather than in public.