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How to deal with introverts in the office

The OED definition of an introvert is: ‘a shy, reticent and typically self-centered person. A person predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings, rather than with external things.’
Put like that, it is not too likely that as an employer, you would want to employ an introvert.

However, being an introvert is not as simple as a dictionary definition. An introvert may well be shy, perhaps occasionally apprehensive and nervous; but introversion, in itself, is not actually shyness.

More typically, an introvert is someone who can be energised by being alone and whose energy may be drained by being with other people.

Introverts are concerned with the workings of the inner world of the mind; they enjoy thinking, they like exploring their thoughts and feelings. Sometimes an introvert, even one with good social skills, may prefer to avoid certain social situations, because other people drain their energies and afterwards, they will probably need time to ‘recharge’.

Dana Rousmaniere, from the Harvard Business Review (HBR), recently held an interesting interview with Susan Cain, author of, Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Rousmaniere’s first question was: “At the conclusion of your book, you make a call to the managers of the world, asking them to recognise that a third to a half of their workforce is introverted, whether they appear that way or not. Why is it so important for managers to make this connection?”

Cain replies: “A third to half the population are introverts, yet it really does not feel that way. I bet if you weren’t thinking about it this way and we said; ‘How many of my colleagues are introverts?’, you’d probably think it’s a very small percentage, just a small handful of people.”

“And that is because introverts get into the habit of sort of trying to act like extroverts. And by the time you’re a grown up, you get quite skilled at doing this. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take a toll, that doesn’t deplete your energies, that could be better directed towards actually getting your work done.”

She says that, from an employer’s point of view, you want all your employees operating at their peak level of energy, efficiency and motivation, so the understanding you have so many introverts working with you, and working out how to get the best out of their brains, is actually a huge managerial challenge.

Psychologist, Russell Geen, conducted an experiment, where maths problems were given to introverts and extroverts to solve, with varying levels of background noise. The introverts did better when the noise was lower, and the extroverts performed better when the noise was louder.

Introverts and extroverts operate better at different levels of stimulation, so one environment doesn’t suit all and it is worth finding how people can pick and choose the type of work environment that fits them best.

Cain says that the misconception is that introverts are shy and antisocial, but it isn’t that at all. She says: “It has to do with how you react to stimulation, including social stimulation. This operates at the level of the nervous system, it’s not merely a preference.”

She says that introverts feel at their most alive, their most energised, when they are in quieter, lower key environments. Extroverts crave and depend on larger amounts of stimulation to feel at their best. This has huge implications on how we socialise; introverts are not antisocial, they simply prefer to socialise in quieter ways.

She says: “At work, if introverts have a problem to solve, they would rather sort of quietly and casually talk through the problem, one on one, behind the scenes, rather than get everyone together in a big meeting.”

Hammering out a problem in a big group is a more stimulating approach, but it doesn’t work as well for introverts. Cain says it is important to distinguish this from shyness, which is more about the fear of social judgement and the assumption people are judging you negatively.

“In practice, some introverts are also shy, but many are not. Or many are shy in some circumstances, but really not in others.”

In the book, Cain says workplaces are increasingly being designed for extroverts, with pods of desks and open plan floors. It makes it easier for group work, but how does it affect introverts?

Cain says she is a critic of open plan offices, both for extroverts and introverts. She looks at research showing why open offices can be so detrimental to everything, from productivity to emotional health, and although they are bad for extroverts, they are even worse for introverts.

She says: “ I recently had to work in an open office and there was so much noise. I found it difficult to think and then I was struck by just how much energy you need to spend just kind of arranging your face.”

“You’re on full view all the time, and for me, and probably many people, when I’m really working and I’m really focused, I tend to have a furrowed brow, or rest my head in my hands. When you’re in an open plan office, you have to devote really precious mental energy thinking about these things. And I think it’s a waste.”

“Also, open office plans have been found to make people get the flu more often, just because they’re sort of out there,but the really paradoxical thing is that it’s harder to actually develop closer relationships with your colleagues; so it’s kind of like the opposite of what you think they’ll do.”

She says businesses think it’s a great big social experience, but actually forming true connections often depends on a level of privacy and intimacy, whereas people in open offices feel they can be overheard all the time, so it’s harder for them to exchange the confidences that make friendships happen.

She says that we seem to have forgotten that a crucial role of creativity is solitude and that when you are in a group of people, you instinctively start to mimic others’ opinions.

“Creative people, truly creative people, have always known this and understood this and sensed it. If you look at the life stories of many of the most spectacularly creative people, these are people who go off by themselves, who cultivate solitude, because that is a key lifeblood for them.”

“Picasso talked about this and I think we need to bring it back to our workplaces and what I suggest is a kind of hybrid process, where if you have a real problem to solve, a creative problem, you might send people off by themselves to brainstorm on their own.”

“And then once they’ve come up with their best ideas, bring them together in a group and exchange those ideas. But it’s crucial to have that solitary aspect first.”

Rousmaniere questions Cain on the word, power, in the title of her book and asks what she believes makes introverts powerful. Cain replies that introverts have so much to offer; “For one thing, there’s the creativity piece I was alluding to. People who have looked at who the most creative people are, almost always find that these people have deep introverted streaks in them.”

“And that is because solitude is so crucial to creativity and it is easier for introverts to go off by themselves, to think in this way, because it’s something they need to do, for their own emotional peace. And that coincides really well with creative work. But it’s kind of beyond that too.”

She says introverts show a kind of persistence and a level of concentration that extroverts sometimes have more trouble with. “For example, if you give introverts and extroverts a difficult problem to solve, you will find that the introverts spend more time analysing the problem before they dive in, than extroverts do.”

Traditionally, we think of great leaders being extroverts, larger than life, charismatic figures, which they often are, but Cain says there are many powerful introverted leaders; Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and many others you may not have heard of.

This is because they are more likely to let their employees run with their great proactive ideas, while extroverts tend to get excited and try to take control. They put their stamp on things and other peoples’ ideas can’t rise so easily to the surface.

Sometimes the best employees lack a huge ego; so look around you. Maybe half your workforce is made up of introverts and you are not letting them fulfill their potential.

If some introverted nerd turns up for a job interview, he may well turn out to be a better employee than the Usain Bolts of this world.

Nigel Phillips

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