How employers can — and should — utilize the power of “quiet” people
I am an INFJ.
Which means I’m an introvert, intuitive, feeling and judgment-oriented. While I’m not a great subscriber to personality tests as an end-all, be-all understanding to someone, I do find that I tend to check off most of the INFJ personality traits, especially my tendency to introversion.
Introversion in itself is not a bad trait to have. However, a lot of times introverts are misunderstood and oftentimes judged as being aloof, cold or antisocial. There are some introverts who do tend to behave in such a manner, but most introverts aren’t. Introversion isn’t an affliction; it’s a different lens through which to view the world.
As a person who is actively seeking employment after college graduation in May, I understand that the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” in American society. In fact, Americans across the board are some the most outwardly-facing extroverts on Earth.
In Susan Cain’s 2012 book, Quiet, Cain dedicates over 200 pages diving into the power of introversion in “Extrovert Ideal” societies, such as the USA. Throughout the book, Cain time and time again argues that introverts can, and do, change the world. She lists off famous people who are and were unabashedly introverted: Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Steve Wozniak and Rosa Parks. They were humble, creative and revolutionaries. Yet each of these people went on to change history, from co-founding Apple to igniting a revolution. In their own, quiet ways, they achieved great success.
So, how can employers — who are looking to harness the powers of humility, creativity and revolutionary spirit — utilize introverts in their workforce? How might that change the way their business runs? And how can introverts finally be utilized to the best of their abilities? In my experience, there are a few across-the-board things that employers can do to ensure that introverts can thrive.
Give introverts time and space to work alone
When I was in seventh grade, my favorite thing to do was sit in the windowsill of the classroom and read. Of course, that made me somewhat of a social pariah, but I didn’t mind because I loved reading. Reading gave me a glance into other worlds. Now, instead of sitting in the windowsill all day reading, I easily get lost into my writing or coding. I can go for hours without stopping. And I do my best work when I’m alone.
Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, created the prototype of the first Apple I by himself. The man who literally changed the way people do personal computing did it alone. In his memoir iWoz, he writes: “And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee.” However, he understood when teamwork makes the dream work; he later teamed up with extrovert Steve Jobs to introduce Apple to the world. Now, of course, everyone has a personal computer, and their iPhones could virtually replace their laptop if it weren’t frustratingly hard to type on them.
So, employers should realize that their introverted employees need space to be alone. In an open-plan office space, though, finding a place to be alone is difficult. While extroverts might like the face-to-face interaction with co-workers, introverts can become overstimulated and unfocused if they don’t have a place where they can just be alone. I promise you, it doesn’t mean we don’t like you, it just means that we do our best thinking and our best work when we’re completely alone. It’s the same reason why I can’t work well when I’m listening to music with lyrics: I get too distracted by the lyrics that I can’t concentrate on my own work. In the same way, in the noisy din of an office, I can’t seem to find my rhythm as well as I do in a quieter atmosphere. If you want your introverts to feel at home, then give them a place where they can at least close the door and work in peace and quiet.
Understand that “quiet” does not equal “idealess”
When I’m in a large group setting, I like to sit back and only contribute to the conversation when I have something valuable to say. Sometimes, when I’m being asked to think on the spot, though, I clam up and words seem to escape me. The question, “Do you have anything you want to add?” is maddening. It’s frustrating to have ideas but have trouble with articulating them.
Of course, this isn’t solely an introvert problem. Extroverts can also have trouble speaking in front of large groups, but it’s more commonly associated with introverts. Personally, I’m afraid to speak up in meetings for fear of rejection. I don’t want people to look and me and think, Wow, that was a really stupid thing to say. That was especially true when I was in China and my mediocre Mandarin skills left me the laughingstock of the office. Whether it was real or perceived, my brain coded it all as real.
As an employer, you should work towards making office meetings a safe space for everyone. Make sure to send out debrief emails to everyone beforehand with the meeting agenda. This gives introverts time to plan out the meeting. During the beginning of the meeting itself, encourage active listening and give introverts the time to collect their thoughts before speaking. Don’t let others step all over the toes of introverts. Everyone hates being interrupted, but for an introvert, it can feel like a personal attack on their ideas. If you can hold meetings with two to three people instead of company-wide, do that. Introverts tend to work better and speak up more frequently when they feel like there are fewer eyes on them.
Lastly, limit the number of face-to-face meetings and keep meeting times consistent. If something can be solved over email or Slack, then use those channels. This doesn’t mean you should cut out meetings altogether, but understand that the biggest dread of meetings is having to speak up in front of a lot of co-workers.
Encourage introverts to cultivate their strengths
My weakness is talking to strangers. I hate it. Whether it be over-the-phone or in-person, talking to strangers is terrifying. As a journalist, it seems like I should be comfortable with talking to strangers. The job of a journalist is to talk to strangers. Yet, I become deeply unsettled when I have to talk with someone I don’t know.
I remember in an introductory journalism class, my professor constantly mentioned that “interviewing should be a piece of cake because you’re all extroverts.” Needless to say, I disliked that class. That class, as well as my time at the Daily Tar Heel, made me completely re-think my career path. I came into college believing my ultimate goal was to become editor-in-chief at the Daily Tar Heel. After my first year, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a journalist anymore. But then I discovered the behind-the-scenes work of multimedia journalists.
Whereas my weakness is talking to strangers, my strength is being able to crank out code or design. I love data visualization and user experience design because I’m telling a story through my work, but I’m not going out there and talking to strangers. It’s like wanting to work in movies but not wanting to be an actor. The director of photography is just as important to the story as Tom Cruise or Anne Hathaway. I’ve learned — the hard way — where my strengths lie, and I’ve worked for the past three years to cultivate the skills I need to do my job well.
Employers, encourage your introverts to cultivate their strengths. Whether their strengths lie in graphic design, empathy or copyediting, it is important to foster growth. Encourage introverts to participate in professional development workshops or attend industry conferences. Even if the workshop or conference pushes them outside of their comfort zone, assure them that these opportunities are not to make them uncomfortable but to expand their knowledge and lead to better performance. Again, going back to Steven Wozniak. Wozniak attended weekly meetings in Silicon Valley all about technology. He might not have spoken up at the meetings, but he ended up using the knowledge he gained to build his computers. Just let them have some downtime afterward to decompress and reflect on what they’ve learned.
Finally, to the Introverts: take risks
Now introverts, don’t think that these suggestions mean that you get off scot-free. While you should never pretend to be something you’re not, it’s important to challenge yourself. If you stay in your comfort zone, then you’ll never be able to grow. Recognize that you do need to collaborate with others. Learn to take criticism from others. It might hurt the first time, but understand that constructive feedback helps.
Yes, Wozniak created the first Apple computer prototype by himself, but he most certainly had other engineers evaluate and expand off of his initial work. If innovation stopped there, then there would be no MacBook Air or Apple Watch. Stretch yourself to speak up more when you have a good idea, or simply say hi to co-workers at lunch. Above all, remain true to yourself, but don’t let your introversion hold you back from achieving greatness.