In a society and culture that arguably privileges extroversion, it can be challenging to be an introvert in the workplace. But thanks in part to Susan Cain’s best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, there seems to be a greater societal desire to understand introverted people.
Introverts are the minority, making up just one third of the population. This means they are often unintentionally instructed to change key parts of their personalities in order to fit in or excel. While naturally vocal, charismatic, and decisive colleagues are often rewarded for these qualities, introverts may be seen as lacking in passion or analytical thinking. Rather than ask introverts to change who they are and how they function, extroverts should consider ways to better understand and make space for their quieter counterparts.
The privilege of extroversion
In an interview with TIME, Cain defines introversion as “people who prefer quieter, more minimally stimulating environments.” Distinct from shyness, introversion and extroversion are about stimulation. Extroverts feel at their best and crave a high degree of stimulation, while introverts prefer less of it. Cain argues that society assigns more value to the behaviors and qualities of extroverts in all sorts of institutions:
"In our society, the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there.’ Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts. "
Over time, people learn that their natural preferences for how they spend their time are not valid or valued. If we are not careful, adults in the workplace can also unintentionally marginalize introverted colleagues, too.
For the most part, extroverts have an easier time with social matters. Interviews, salary negotiations, speaking up at meetings, and networking come more naturally to the types of individuals who seek external stimulation and motivation. While it is great to celebrate these qualities, it is important to note that these are not the only things that signal competency and passion.
Why you should actively value introversion
Many qualities of introversion are valuable and necessary for any workplace. In her article “15 Workplace Strengths and Struggles for Introverts,” Robin Young lists many typical introvert qualities that should be praised. These include insightfulness, empathy, team-oriented thinking, introspection, and natural writing abilities.
By better understanding the value of these qualities, we can more easily modify behaviors to optimize our quieter counterparts.
Tips on how to make space for your introverted colleagues
With a better understanding of just what makes introverts so terrific, here are a few tips on how to be inclusive:
- Be sensitive to sensitivity: Does one of your quieter colleagues seem distressed when there is too much noise or too many people talking at once? Try checking in with them. Perhaps they would appreciate it if you could ask your other colleagues to turn down their music, or to speak more quietly to one another.
- Be self-aware of how much space you are taking: Sometimes, extroverts demonstrate enthusiasm and passion by taking up all the space. While this is not an inherently harmful practice, it can feel very daunting for introverts as they try to break through an extrovert’s more natural ability to externalize thoughts and feelings. If you are the kind of person who takes up lots of air time, try to be conscientious about how often you’re speaking.
- Encourage others to participate, but try not to put people on the spot: The process of making room for those who are introverted can vary from person to person. Some have things they want to say in a meeting, but simply can’t get a word in because of the pace or the volume in the room. In these cases, they may appreciate being pointedly asked for feedback during the meeting. But others feel deep anxiety about being put on the spot. It may take another strategy to make room for them.
- Prepare agendas for meetings and send them in advance: Some introverts want and need more time to process information before participating in discussions. By preparing and circulating an agenda in advance of your meeting, you can give everyone the opportunity to digest and process information. This will allow them to participate more meaningfully.
- Learn to value quiet: By experiencing and learning to enjoy quiet moments, extroverts can also learn how to sharpen their senses and become more observant. This will help you to better understand when and how you are impacting your colleagues.
By exercising self-awareness and active compassion, extroverts can help create an environment that enables introverts to flourish, too. And who doesn’t want a world in which everyone is set up to succeed?
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Yejin Lee is a nonprofit professional and career coach based in New York City. She is most passionate about supporting nonprofits in operationalizing a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) framework, and assisting individuals in thoughtfully identifying and strategically pursuing professional goals. Yejin also loves cooking, eating, annotating TV shows, and hanging out with her husband and sassy shiba inu.