Most businesses have a mix of socially-minded employees, and those who prefer to keep to themselves. It’s generally accepted that everyone is invited to the pub after work on Friday, but the more shy folks in the office aren’t pressured if they decline.
Unless it’s a highly social field like recruitment, sales, acting or politics, quieter people will likely make up a decent part of the workforce, but businesses aren’t always set up to get the best out of them.
Just as we’re getting more comfortable talking about mental health in business, we’re also seeing increased awareness of personality diversity. Understanding how businesses can cater for more introverted souls can not only improve their wellbeing, but increase team cohesion, communication effectiveness, and productivity.
What is an introvert?
The difference between introvert and extrovert isn’t quite as simple as quiet vs. loud.
It’s not so much about how we like to behave in group settings (although that’s likely to differ in preference too.) It actually all comes down to rest. We all have our own preferences for how we like to recharge our energy after strenuous activities.
As put by Laurie Helgoe pHD, author of Introvert Power,
“Introversion is an inward orientation to life, and extroversion (alternatively spelled extraversion) is an outward orientation. Though you probably use both introversion and extroversion, one of these orientations usually feels more like home—more comfortable, more interesting and more energizing—than the other. Introverts prefer introversion; we tend to gain energy by reflecting and expend energy when interacting. Extroverts have the opposite preference; they tend to gain energy by interacting and expend energy while reflecting.”
And unfortunately for some, the world of business is oriented towards the extraverts, based as it is in conversation, sales, persuasion and marketing.
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says:
"Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts, and many introverts believe that there is something wrong with them and that they should try to 'pass' as extroverts. The bias against introversion leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy, and happiness.”
Thriving as an introvert within a business, or even leading one, is completely possible. We just have to make a few adjustments.
Boxing ourselves in
Firstly, a note on labels.
The introversion / extraversion dynamic is based on preferences. Like any psychological prognosis, they’re not concrete rules. We all have tendencies, but we also have free will and unique personalities - so these can change over time, or even day-to-day.
This explains the existence of ambiverts. According to Wikipedia,
"An ambivert is moderately comfortable with groups and social interaction, but also relishes time alone, away from a crowd. In simpler words, an ambivert is a person whose behaviour changes according to the situation they are in. In face of authority or in presence of strangers, the person may be introverted. However, in the presence of family or close friends, the person may be highly energetic or extraverted.”
As a writer, I’m more prone to introversion, but I’m hesitant to slap on the label of ‘introvert’, because it sets a precedent for future behaviour. When I’m well-rested and happy in life, I’m fine with being the centre of attention. When I’m tired, cranky and overworked, I’m back in the shell, avoiding people and living with my own thoughts.
That said, adjusting business dynamics to cater for those who exhibit mostly introverted behaviour is highly important for any modern company.
How to cater for introverts in business
There are a few ways to get the best out of introverts by making things a bit easier for them in the business environment.
Ask people how they prefer to work
“Do you prefer to work alone or in teams? What’s an ideal work environment for you? How do you recharge?” - these would be worth asking for both existing workers and new employees. In some scenarios, people become social chameleons; they pretend to be quieter or louder than they actually prefer, in order to fit in. Asking them what works for them will bring out the best in their working lives.
Providing space for people to work in private is really helpful. Not only is it better for periods of concentration (which benefits all personality types) but it provides a sanctuary for those more easily distracted and sensitive to noise.
Also, foster a company culture where private time isn’t looked down upon. Some super-social companies in open offices think that taking a laptop into a private booth is untrustworthy, which really shouldn’t be the case. Balancing private work with being available to talk is a healthy way to work.
While many breakthroughs come from collaboration, many others come from solo work and introspection. Meetings aren't the only solution to issues. If something needs solving, try sending out a Slack message rather than calling a meeting. Give people time and space to work on solving problems, and introverts especially are likely to bring critical insight and wisdom to the table.
If you must have a meeting, offer quieter folk the opportunity to speak without pressuring them to do so. Sharing the meeting agenda in advance, or giving them a heads-up that you'd like them to contribute, will help prepare them to talk more.
Some take a little longer to work out their thoughts & feelings on a topic and prefer to contribute afterwards - so make sure that's an option.
Embrace extroverts too
Rather than trying to silence the talkative ones, why not encourage them to team up with introverts? Encouraging them to listen more and help their colleagues speak up will foster better working relationships and ensure that more talkative employees don't dominate the conversation too much. Extroverts are just as valuable as introverts - maybe that's worth a blog post for another time.