Introverts can be the secret power in a workplace, and their qualities aren’t only useful to themselves; they also model great lessons for colleagues.
The stigma against introverts
Introverts can get the short end of the stick at times, with their need for quiet and retreat sometimes pathologized as a bad fit for increasingly social offices. In fact, introversion was once considered a psychological disorder. Thankfully the world has come far since then, but there’s still far to go.
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, touched on the bias against introverts in a 2012 TED talk.
“Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, they are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation. And also we have this belief system right now that I call the new groupthink, which holds that all creativity and all productivity comes from a very oddly gregarious place,” Cain said.
What everyone can learn from introverts
But even extroverts are discovering that they need some of the same things as introverts do in order to function at peak productivity: quiet places to focus, time to think and reflect.
Where “introverted” qualities are winning most: the rebellion against the open-plan office. The Wall Street Journal profiled several CEOs, mostly extroverted, who were escaping open-plan offices and retreating into quiet rooms to think and plan strategy.
Another problem with open-plan offices: for everyone, they are hotbeds of emotional contagion, in which one person’s mood potentially affects everyone. This is a double-edged sword: People can throw off rays off cheerfulness, lifting everyone to see the brighter side, or be black holes of negative charisma, dragging everyone into their world of complaints and dissatisfaction.
The WSJ captured this problem in the anecdote of one CEO: “For seven years, Blake Harvey and his employees at his New York communications firm, Lawrence Blake Group, toiled together in co-working spaces. His staff sometimes felt self-conscious working under their boss’s gaze. When he was worried about the business, there was no hiding. ‘If I was a little down, they could see that, and that affects the whole team,’ he said.”
Harvard Business Review ran a similar warning from an executive who had fallen victim to emotional contagion from a constantly-complaining colleague: “Negative emotions spread fast and they’re highly toxic.”
That means two things that introverts already know: first, it’s better to have some distance from other people on occasion to avoid absorbing other people’s moods when you need to focus your own work, and second, that working harder to put on a happy face is exhausting for everyone.
The five good qualities of introverts at work
There are habits formed by introverts that apply to everyone, including extroverts and “ambiverts” who are a hybrid of the two personalities.
1. They can think in practical terms
Because introverts protect their quiet time and focus so intently, they tend to get less distracted — a habit that’s useful for anyone to adopt. They can also look at a situation more directly, without the extroverts’ tendency to treat ever situation as a public performance.
Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength, spoke about introverts’ ability to be realistic in a 2015 article by The Wall Street Journal, written by Elizabeth Bernstein.
“Extroverts are oriented to seek the positive—to loudly promote what they’re working on and rally their cheerleaders behind them. But that may lead them to overlook the realities of a situation. Introverts tend to be more critical, Dr. Helgoe says. As a result, they are more realistic when it comes to weighing feedback and analyzing information,” Bernstein wrote.
2. They listen and stay calm
Listening is a source of strength in any workplace, and the introverts’ ability to stop talking and listen to others is a valuable skill towards understanding colleagues and leaders.
Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength, wrote about introverted leaders’ ability to listen in a 2009 Forbes article.
“Learning by listening, not talking, is a trait that introverts consistently demonstrate. They also use their calm, quiet demeanors to be heard amid all the organizational noise and chatter. (One thoughtful, reasoned comment in a meeting can move a group forward by leaps and bounds.) In fact, the most powerful person in the room is often the most quiet,” Kahnweiler wrote.
The oft-quoted proverb is: “you’re not learning (or listening) when you’re talking.” Introverts know this intrinsically and give others space to reveal thoughts and ideas.
3. They learn about their coworkers
“They engage in two-way communication. Quiet changemakers can excel through our preference for one-on-one or small-group communication. Through these individual interactions, we learn about our colleagues more deeply in a way that positively impacts our relationships,” Isakson writes.
4. They can be humble
While extroverts frequently announce their victories — and also overstate them as a result — introverts are more cautious about bragging and evaluate themselves more honestly. Jeff Boss wrote about how introverts can be humble in a 2015 Entrepreneur article.
“Not to say that extroverts aren’t humble, but introverts tend to have an accurate sense of their abilities and achievements…humility entails the ability to acknowledge mistakes, imperfections, knowledge gaps and limitations — all key ingredients for getting ahead in business and life.”
5. They make great leaders because they don’t wait for applause
Extroverts live for attention and applause; other people give them energy. Introverts, however, are more likely to be focused on the tasks before them even if they don’t get constant positive reinforcement.
Cain talked about a common misconception about introverts in a 2012 interview with Scientific American — that they can’t lead effectively.
“According to groundbreaking new research by Adam Grant, a management professor at Wharton, introverted leaders sometimes deliver better outcomes than extroverts do. Introverts are more likely to let talented employees run with their ideas, rather than trying to put their own stamp on things. And they tend to be motivated not by ego or a desire for the spotlight, but by dedication to their larger goal,” Cain told the publication.
The upshot of adopting some introverted traits is that we can’t change who we are, but we can step back with self-awareness and learn from others.