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The Challenges of Managing Introverts

By Jayne Chater

As an extrovert who was born into a family of extroverts, working mostly with extroverts for the first 15 years of my career, and living in a country that is typically more extroverted, I grew up assuming everyone was like me, with extroverted behaviours. Thank goodness that is not actually the case.

Some Definitions

First of all let’s just clarify the difference between an introvert and an extrovert. Simply put, an introvert thinks to talk and an extrovert talks to think. The next time you sit with someone who you know is quite different to you, take a moment to notice: what do they do compared to you? Do they process in their head before they talk or do they talk, and then talk some more, to make sense of what they have just said? One cannot always assume that extroverts are always the loud ones and introverts are always the quiet ones but mostly, in my experience, this is the case.

Another way to understand the differences between the introvert and the extrovert is to think of them as having a different way of relating to the world. This concept goes back to the 1920s and the psychologist Carl Jung. It is not a skill or a choice. It is not a lifestyle. Introverts are people who find other people tiring. By contrast, extroverts are energised by people and wilt or fade when alone.

The well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and its recent cousin the Majors PT-Elements have a construct that is devoted to ‘how one relates to the world.’  The advanced MBTI further breaks the introversion – extroversion construct into five scales:

Introverts are typically:

  • RECEIVING while Extroverts are INITIATING
  • CONTAINED while Extroverts are EXPRESSIVE
  • INTIMATE while Extroverts are GREGARIOUS
  • REFLECTIVE while Extroverts are ACTIVE
  • QUIET while Extroverts are ENTHUSIASTIC

So it is more complex than just being labelled as an extrovert or an introvert.  For simplicity sake, we can say that introverts get their energy from their inner world of thoughts and ideas while extroverts are energised by being with, and engaging with, others. One thing is certain, out of all the constructs of personality, extroversion-introversion is one of the most powerful influencers about what we notice and how we live our lives.

What it Means in the Workplace

Working with introverts, both colleagues and clients, I see how useful it can be to think, articulate in your head and then speak, rather than speak to fill the silence. I see first-hand how introverted leaders can gain a following as ‘Quiet Leaders’ and I see the quality of conversations introverts have when they have the space to engage in-depth, rather than in superficial chit chat. Yet like many extroverts, I can also find introverted ways challenging and I understand the challenges that introverts face in a day to day business environment.

Some examples:

  1. Not having time or space to process thinking – I have seen introverts ‘go inside their own head’ and become quieter and quieter to the point they pretend that the extrovert is no longer in the room. Just because you ignore extroverts, doesn’t mean they will go away. In fact it will probably have the opposite effect.
  2. Having verbal information only – introverts will typically prefer email or written information to conversation or excessive dialogue. However, in most cases a face to face conversation will save time and avoid the confusion that an email can often bring. The key is finding out which method is more appropriate for the situation or figuring out how to use both.
  3. When people meet for the sake of meeting – all of the introverts I know need to have a reason to meet whereas extroverts are quite happy to meet to ‘chit chat’ and simply catch up. Don’t underestimate the benefits that can come from ‘shooting the breeze’ now and again – to build increased connection with others.

Giving Everyone What They Need

Introverts typically find open-plan work environments a challenge to work in. So it’s important that they have access to quiet spaces for completing more intensive work.  Mobile phones and emails can be unwelcome distractions so don’t be an offended extrovert if you don’t hear from them for hours because they are working on a big project.  

When thinking about designing an ideal environment in a training situation, facilitators would do well to ensure that there are both quiet contemplative times for reading and digesting new material as well as for paired or small group work. Introverts need their personal space and if they don’t get it they can get ratty or rattled, both of which are not nice to be around.  

Because of their preference to be an onlooker / observer, introverts really come into their own when they are asked to review and comment upon others’ work and to appraise the logic of a situation. So it is useful to appreciate this and think about what situations would benefit from using such a preference.

Being a Leader

Because introversion-extroversion is pretty big in determining what we notice and how we live our lives, as a leader it pays to notice what environments extroverts thrive in, and those that our quieter folk thrive in. Investing your time in doing some ‘quality’ noticing can repay your efforts many times over, especially if you are then able to adapt your approach to operate in a way that gets the best from your team of introverts and extroverts.

It is also important to be aware of how your introversion or extroversion can affect those working with you. An introverted direct report and an extroverted manager can make for an interesting relationship.

For example, the introverted direct report needs some peace and quiet and the extroverted manager likes to chat and may be the first person to say “you don’t seem to be making much head way on this project. I think you need to lock yourself away and get on with it!”. The unspoken rejoinder from the introvert is “yes, if you’d let me!” Reversing the roles, an extroverted direct report may feel affronted that they need to make an appointment to see their introverted manager when all they wanted was to share an idea.

How to Work Together

As an extrovert, when working with introverts, I have learned to slow down and take a moment to think before I speak and I allow some space so they can process what I have said. I also accept that it is ok if they would rather sit in the other room to focus on their work rather than converse with me to work through the project together.  

It’s about recognising what works not only for yourself but for the others you interact with daily. And as a parting thought, as an introvert, what are you doing to find out what works for extroverts in your day to day life?

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