The Strong, Silent Type

What secret powers your introverted employees may have  — and how to unleash them.

Back Article Jul 7, 2016 By Jeff Wilser

No job is only a job. You are paid to be competent and to get your work done, sure. But there are countless social interactions that shade the way you’re evaluated: chit-chat on the elevator, poise in a meeting, even the stories you tell (or don’t tell) over happy hour. The old adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” while not entirely accurate, still has more than a kernel of truth. Connections are the key to raises, promotions and job offers.

Introverts know this all too well. One out of every three Americans fall into the category, yet being an introvert is treated like some kind of disorder. “Introversion — along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness and shyness — is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology,” argues Susan Cain in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. “Introverts living under the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ are like a woman in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.” (Cain defines the Extrovert Ideal as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.

Most companies stack the deck against introverts. Even if the bias is purely subconscious, we all tend to value the talkers, the alpha-dogs and the stars who ooze charisma. It’s human nature. In one of many such studies detailed in Cain’s book, college students were split into groups and asked to solve math problems, then to rate each other’s math skills. The extroverts were all rated highly, yet their actual math SAT scores were equivalent to the introverts: We assume the talkers are better at things, even when there’s no proof. Yet more business leaders are realizing that not only is this unfair to introverts, it’s actually bad for business, as introverts bring their own skill sets to the table. And with just a few simple changes, a company can level the playing field and unleash the secret powers of the introverts.

Is Your “Be Like Me” Mentality Hurting Your Team? - It takes both introverts and extroverts to keep the office humming

The War Against Quiet

The uphill climb for introverts, in some ways, begins long before their first day on the job. “Most MBA programs are really biased in favor of extroverts,” says Kimberly Elsbach, associate dean and professor of organizational behavior at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. “I didn’t realize — even in my own class — how biased I was. But we really reward extroversion.” Elsbach says that in-class debates, group projects, presentations and even the college’s entrance interviews set introverts up for failure. “If you make it through the whole process as an introvert, that’s a testament to your stamina. And that’s unfair. We’re losing a lot of really good people because they can’t get in or they don’t do as well.”

Christine Collins, an associate attorney at Wilke Fleury, is a self-described introvert. “I used to work in a courtroom, and that scared the crap out of me,” she says, laughing.  (Like most introverts, though, she’s not shy or timid in a one-on-one conversation.) “I don’t particularly like public speaking. And when we had to travel for work, I’d find myself wandering away from the group, just trying to get away. With too many people I’d get moody. I used to think, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get along with people?’”

Or take Lea Adams, chief of Water Resource Systems Division at the Hydrologic Engineering Center in Sacramento. She leads a team of 13 engineers. Seven years ago, after working with tons of people all day and then juggling social plans at night — networking events, dinner parties — she felt overwhelmed. “I had social events on a Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday night,” Adams says. “At the end of the weekend, I ended up in tears. And I could see that introversion was impacting my career.”

A Myers-Briggs assessment  confirmed that Adams was an introvert. Her test was administered by Brenda Elitzin, a career development consultant who, despite her talk-heavy job, is also an introvert. “It’s a misconception to conflate the idea of ‘introversion’ and ‘shyness,’” Elitzin says. “I’m often in front of people. But I had to develop those skills over time.” And it takes a toll. Elitzin says that both personality types have the ability to give speeches and hobnob with strangers, but introverts find this draining and extroverts find it rejuvenating, because they’re charged differently. “Picture a balloon. For extroverts, imagine that the balloon is deflated in the morning, and their goal all day long is to fill the balloon — they fill it by talking with others,” Elitzin explains. “For an introvert, when they wake up in the morning, their balloon is full. So, over the course of the day, when they interact with people that balloon just deflates and deflates.”

The Secret Power of Introverts

“When everyone else is running around with their hair on fire, introverts don’t get riled up. This can be a real advantage to the group.” Brenda Elitzen, Career Development Consultant

Introverts bring a lot to the table. The many cited in Cain’s book include Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks and Gandhi. Sweeping generalizations can be dicey, but introverts tend to be more deliberate, rigorous and detail-oriented. “If there’s a tough, prickly problem that requires careful analysis, then putting an introvert in charge is the smart thing to do,” says Elsbach, of UC Davis. “They’re going to make sure that the analysis gets done. They’re going to take the time to do it right. Extroverts are much more likely to just ‘go with their gut,’ which can get you in a lot of trouble.”

In the introvert manifesto Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference,  Jennifer Kahnweiler says that introverts have the “four p’s” that can make them effective leaders:

  • Introverts prepare
  • Introverts are present
  • Introverts push themselves
  • Introverts practice

The “pushing themselves” trait, in particular, is often underappreciated. “Introverts are ambitious,” Elsbach says. “The notion that they don’t have that fire in their belly … that’s just a fallacy. Even if they don’t seem like go-getters, they are often very focused, goal-oriented and organized. They just do it in a quiet way.”

Introverts don’t want to simply get the job done — they want to get it done right. “I feel like I’m a lot more careful about things,” says Collins, the attorney. “I’m human and I make errors, but I tend to catch issues more than most people. I want to look at things from all angles.” She practices, she prepares and she spends more time calculating risks, weighing the pros and cons, and ensuring that her clients are truly considering all the relevant details — and those details matter in law.

When a company crowds out the introverts, they’re crowding out good ideas. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the introverts’ ideas are better, but it means they could get buried. Let’s take a hypothetical example: Imagine a brainstorming meeting of 12 people. Four of them are introverts. Assume, for the moment, that introverts and extroverts are equally likely to have a good idea — let’s say half of everyone’s ideas are good to keep the math simple.

This is how many ideas they would generate:

12 extroverts = 6 good ideas, 6 bad ideas.

4 introverts = 2 good ideas, 2 bad ideas.

Now here’s the glitch: Imagine that the team leader is only selecting the eight best ideas.  If she carefully listened to all the ideas — and if everyone had an equal chance to pitch their idea — then she would record six good ideas from the extroverts, and two good ideas from the introverts. That nets a total of eight good ideas and zero bad ideas. Not bad! But this is not what usually happens. Instead, the extroverts bulldoze the conversation. They put on a show. The team leader is more likely to hear and listen to the ideas from the extroverts, meaning she selects the extroverts’ top eight ideas, which yields six good ideas and two bad ideas, leaving the introverts frustrated and the team worse off.

“Extroverts want to grab the conversation,” says Adams, who sees this dynamic all the time. She has modified her behavior to be advantageous. “Now I sit back and really listen to what’s going on, digesting. I could sit there and not say anything for 20 minutes, and they forget that I’m in the room. Then I say something, and their heads whip around and they say, ‘Oh, that’s a really good point!’”

 Introverts are present. They tend to have deeper powers of concentration. This can be soothing and stabilizing, especially in a time of crisis. “They come across as being very calm,” Elitzin says. “When everyone else is running around with their hair on fire, introverts don’t get riled up. This can be a real advantage to the group.” Every Steve Jobs needs a Steve Wozniak — a classic introvert. (As are many men. Elitzin isn’t aware of a gender skew one way or the other, saying she does “a lot of work with engineers, and many of them are men, and lots of them are introverts.”)

Leveling the Playing Field

The good news is that without much effort and by tweaking a few tiny things, a manager can get more out of introverts and put them in a position to succeed. “It starts with a basic understanding of how introverts like to work, and allowing them to work that way,” Elsbach says. “They’re not going to do well in a heated brainstorming session. It’s better to first have a calm discussion, then give them time to go back and think, and then follow up with a one-on-one.”  

A meeting facilitator is key. Instead of permitting a shouting match, a good moderator will fish for input from everyone in the room. “The moderator needs to make sure the introvert gets heard,” Elsbach says. “Create a process for running the meeting.” The facilitator can send out discussion points before the meeting, so that introverts have time to mull things over; she can ask for people to raise their hands before talking, discourage interruptions or ask for everyone to quietly write down their ideas on a piece of paper.  The little things add up. More generally, extroverts need to “recognize that introverts have a different style, and it’s just as valid as theirs,” Elitzin says. “Also, they should know that if the introvert on the team doesn’t go out for beers on Friday, it’s not personal.” It’s just not the way they’re wired.

Yet the issue is a two-way street, as “there’s a responsibility on both sides,” says Elitzin. “Introverts might be waiting for an invitation to speak, but you’re not always going to get that invite. You might just have to butt in. And the extroverts won’t even mind!”  

Introverts like Adams, Elitzin and Collins have all given the issue much thought (classic introversion) and, over the years, made deliberate changes to the way they approach their work and their colleagues.

It has paid off. In meetings, Adams now pushes herself out of her comfort zone and refuses to get steamrolled. “Years ago, when I was younger, maybe I would let others keep talking,” Adams says. “Now as I’m older I think, ‘Wait, I have a really good point — I have to be more assertive.’ I follow up if my point wasn’t heard.”  

And her mindset has undergone an even deeper change. With the problem-solving acumen of an engineer, Adams thought about her career goals and realized, for her own personal development, that she needed to focus on somehow aligning her introversion with her workstyle. “I have 13 people to manage. I asked myself, how do I get to know these people? How do I build relationships?” So she created a model that played to her strengths: one-on-one meetings. She meets with at least 10 people a week, every week, for a half-hour one-on-one talk that allows for a deeper discussion. “That’s five hours a week that I spend talking to my staff. Yes, it takes more energy on my part, but it’s the right thing to do. It lets me help them however I can, give them whatever they need.”

Collins also finds the one-on-one approach helpful. “I hate networking events!” she says, laughing. “They just make me so uncomfortable. But networking isn’t only about large events; you can meet one-on-one with people or join a small group.” Collins now has a command of what workstyle works best for her; she owns it and lets others know it. “A lot of people like to talk on the phone,” she explains. “I’d rather respond over email, which lets me really think about the issue and give a more thoughtful answer. I also like to work with my door shut, and now I tell people, ‘that doesn’t mean I’m being antisocial.’”

That kind of openness is exactly the kind of self-advocacy Elsbach recommends. “If you’re an introvert, be open about it. The solution isn’t to try and overcome it. It’s a personality trait. This is always going to be you,” she advises. And this can take effort. “It’s important to rehearse before a job interview or meeting. It’s worth putting in the work. Introversion doesn’t mean you can’t behave in an extroverted way. It just takes more energy. If it’s important, rehearse it.”  

“Don’t apologize for it,” Elitzin says. “If you need that alone time, schedule a three-hour meeting just for yourself. Really honor your introversion. That’s how you do your best work. And that’s what they hired you to do, right?” I’ll drink to that. (Alone.)

Are you an introverted professional? Let us know your tips for success in the comments below. 


Jose D ' Abreu (not verified)July 9, 2016 - 5:23pm

Yeah I agree, the introverters are open mind people, they want more than to get the work done, that is just a small part of what they are able to do. Normaly they are people who think further and they are motivated to do well...