Think about it: There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas. And yet, according to Susan Cain, author of the groundbreaking book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, our society is overwhelmingly biased toward extroverts.
This bias is glaringly obvious in our workplace, where teamwork, groupthink and collaboration are prized over deliberate, solitary work and quiet thought. In a world where the “ideal” employee is seen as gregarious, action-oriented, decisive, confident and bold, introverts are often undervalued, overlooked and dismissed. The kind of “people skills” that extroverts often exhibit are increasingly emphasized in performance reviews, while qualities more likely associated with introverts, like reflection, thoughtfulness, and quiet listening are rarely mentioned.
This favoring of extroverts is especially true in the virtual workplace, where introverts are often bypassed in favor of their more garrulous, dynamic colleagues. Why? For pretty much the same reason the proverbial squeaky wheel gets the grease: People who are quick to volunteer their ideas and freely share opinions can make life a lot easier for virtual leaders who otherwise must figure out ways to cajole and persuade their more introverted counterparts to join in the conversation. Far less effort to let the more extroverted team members lead the conversations, hoping they may somehow inspire the more reticent ones to participate – eventually.
In this edition of Communiqué, I explore ways that virtual team leaders can learn how to take advantage of the quiet power and special strengths of the introverts on their teams, instead of trying to make their introverts conform to the “extrovert ideal.” (Please note I have made some generalizations about introverts and extroverts for instructive purposes. In reality, many of us, at least from time to time, display qualities of both extroverts and introverts, depending on the situation.)
- Remarkable powers of concentration: Introverts have the ability to focus on problems, especially those that require deep thinking, for unusually longer periods of time, especially if they have are freed up from having to work with colleagues in the name of “teamwork.” As a team leader, consider assigning your introverts those tasks that can be done well (if not better) independently, with relatively few dependencies on other team members to get the job done. Ideal projects might include gathering primary or secondary data, analyzing results, assimilating recommendations, and formulating action plans.
- Ability to articulate clear ideas in writing: Because introverts tend to stop, reflect and absorb information before speaking, they reflect this kind of deliberate thought in their writing as well. Need someone to formulate a cogent proposal, recommendation, summary or other presentation of important ideas? Your best bet just may be an introvert on your team. (This may be counterintuitive to some leaders, who often assume that charismatic speakers can successfully translate those same speaking skills into written form. The opposite is often true!)
- Active listening and diagnostic abilities: Introverts tend to be more comfortable listening, versus speaking. This is an especially crucial skill in the virtual world, where acute listening skills help us to fill in the gaps left by the absence of visual cues. Tap into the introvert’s exceptional ability to listen by asking him or her to formulate insightful questions, conduct important interviews, or act as a note-taker or observer for team meetings, paying close attention to invisible organizational dynamics that be hard for others to discern. Introverts do a particularly good job demonstrating their sharp listening skills by paraphrasing and summarizing key points, whether verbally or in writing.
- Deep reflection: To make their best contributions, introverts need time to pause, reflect, and think before speaking. That’s why it’s vital to design your team meetings, whether in person or virtual, to build in time to allow people to pause and think, whether by using silence to allow time for reflection, or providing a quiet forum for participation, such as by using an online conference area, or asking people to jot down ideas quietly. This way, you enable introverts to contribute their ideas and opinions more easily and freely, and you also help to balance participation between your extroverts, who can sometimes be a tad overzealous in their verbal contributions, sometimes causing your more circumspect counterparts to withdraw or shut down.
- Attention to detail: Enable your introverts to participate fully in your next important team meeting by clarifying objectives, stating goals, and setting expectations up front. Make sure everyone knows what content will be important to learn and assimilate in advance, and what questions or ideas they should have ready to bring to the table. (If you’re thinking that designing a prework component to your meeting is an unnecessary bother since most people don’t do it – reconsider your assumptions. While it may be true that not everyone will invest time and thought in planning how they want to participate ahead of time, you can bet that your introverts will appreciate the opportunity.)
- Relationship-building. While your extroverts socialize more easily with many different kinds of people, your introverts have a particular talent for developing close, trusting relationships with those who are truly important to them. (Many people assume that an introvert is overly shy just because s/he is selective about with whom to socialize. It’s more often the case that the introvert has less tolerance for social chit-chat and superficial relationships in favor of more meaningful discussions and deeper connections.) If your team needs stronger connections with key people in other organizations, or perhaps with your clients, the introverts on your team can be your best choice. While your social butterflies may draw energy from relating to sheer numbers of people, your introverts are more switched on by fewer, deeper connections—the kind that build lasting relationships.
- Creative super-powers. Still think that the best ideas are generated by groups of people working together in real-time? Many recent studies refute the notion that group brainstorming necessarily results in the highest quantity or quality of innovative ideas. In fact, it is often independent brainstorming that yields the best ideas in the shortest period of time, second only to online brainstorming, where people can contribute ideas in a shared area at any time, from anywhere. Some people may be at their creative best when they can bounce ideas off of each other in real-time, while introverts tend to do their best innovative thinking alone. Leaders who rely on their team members to ignite that creative spark must find ways to enable all kinds of brainstorming, in different venues, at different times.
In a world that correlates the strength of an organization’s teamwork to its overall success, the real value of introverts often gets overlooked. In the virtual world, it’s even easier to ignore or dismiss introverts as being key members of the team, simply because it can take so much more effort to find ways to enable them to make their best contributions. Assuming that your team represents a microcosm of the larger world where fully one-third to one-half of all people are introverts, it’s time to find new ways to leverage the potential of some of your quietest team members, who just may be the best and the brightest, if only you take time to hear them.
Author Susan Cain’s Ted Talk on the Power of Introverts (about 20 minutes long, and worth every minute)
Why Virtual Leaders Need to Learn How to Just be Quiet– past Communiqué
Building Trust Within Virtual Teams – Small Steps Add Up– past Communiqué
An Introvert’s Guide to Networking – HBR blog by Lisa Petrilli
How Introverts Can Become Better Innovators – HBR Blog by Francesca Gino