The Impact of Introverts and the Quiet Revolution

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By Bernadette Smith

Is it possible that introverts are poised to take over the world—or maybe just the workplace to start?  The reality is that introverts make up at least one third of our workforce, and yet it’s clear that while our society recognizes outspoken extroverts as successful business drivers,  we undervalue the innovative contributions that our quieter and less visible employees make.

How then do we acknowledge and enable quiet competence to breakthrough in our workplace?

Introverts HAVE Changed the World
It is well-documented that self-proclaimed introverts have been responsible for some of the greatest achievements in history. You only need to think about Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Barak Obama, Mahatma Ghandi, JK Rowling to understand the impact of their powerful contributions to society.

Nonetheless, as identified by Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, it is the Extrovert Ideal—an omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight—that is still revered and entrenched in our culture. This is despite a growing body of evidence identifies that the characteristics of our softer spoken leaders can be equally or more successful under tough business conditions.

A Look Within the Introvert
Introverts are quiet and cerebral people who are often misunderstood in the workplace, but the need for understanding has never been more apparent.  Unfortunately, our work culture and environments are designed to support the Extrovert Ideal.

The new world of work revolves around teamwork, collaboration, brainstorming, face-to-face meetings, quick decisions and action plans to achieve desired outcomes. Individuals that do their best work under those conditions are rewarded and those that need some “quiet” time to think through their ideas before contributing are left speechless on the sidelines appearing disengaged, passive and aloof. The appearance is one of non-participation, but, in reality, while others are talking, introverts are processing their thoughts, connecting the dots and moving toward a productive solution.

We need to recognize the unique advantages that a more thoughtful, tenacious and introspective work style can bring to solve complex problems. Moreover, we need to create the conditions that will optimize the innovative contributions that they are uniquely capable of delivering.

Five Key Strengths of Introverts

Thoughtful Communicators: They ‘think first and talk later’ delivering on-point key messages with substance and credibility. They work best when they have time to formulate their thoughts rather than be counted on to deliver on-the-spot insights.

Excellent Listeners: They learn by listening attentively to others.  Quiet contemplation enables them to hear things and create valuable insights that they can put into action. They connect the dots to create solutions while others are still talking.

Deep Thinkers: They patiently explore and analyze issues with deep introspection and have an innate ability to create unique solutions to complex problems. They need to be given time to evaluate any given situation to come up with a brilliant solution.

Embrace Solitude: They re-energize by spending time alone and focusing on personal pursuits or reflecting on work-related issues. Quiet time enables their best thinking and improves their creativity, problem-solving and quality of communications. Create space for them to recharge in their own way and to dig deep to find creative solutions to complex problems.

Calm Temperament: A calm and confident demeanour supports complex problem solving in times of crisis. This should not be interpreted as being passive or disengaged in an action oriented workplace.

Fortunately, there is much that can be done create a culture that enables introverts with deep thinking and focused problem solving strengths to thrive in an Extrovert Ideal world.  According to Cain, there needs to be a balance between speed=to-action and the value of thoughtful reflection to enable innovation to flourish.

Four Strategies to Help Introverts Shine
Here are four strategies that will help introverted professionals to break through in the work environment:

  1. ‘Pretend’ extroversion to build personal brand: Introverts don’t typically seek out the spotlight or promote themselves as others would, so their accomplishments may go unnoticed. They can improve their visibility and gain recognition for their knowledge, ideas and solutions by using strategic displays of extroversion when it matters most, but never to the point of inauthenticity.
  2. With advanced preparation or practice, they can learn to feel more comfortable speaking up in social settings and in meetings: They have plenty of personal power based on their expert knowledge, but need to strengthen their presence so that people take notice.  For example, in meetings it might be tough to put forward ideas on the spot without sufficient time for thoughtful consideration.  Careful preparation in advance of the meeting will enable ideas to be presented in the moment.  Being prepared in social settings will help boost confidence in expressing ideas and will go a long way in improving presence with key colleagues as well.
  3. Create privacy and autonomy to ignite creativity: In order for introverts to do their best work, they need quiet time to work alone for deep reflection and to be given the opportunity to fully develop ideas in private before sharing them publicly.  In today’s open concept workplaces, creating access to an environment that is free from distractions—and reduces the requirement for collaboration, meetings, and other face-to-face interactions—is ideal for removing the barriers to innovation.
  4. Communicate powerfully to get noticed: The three V’s of communication strategy can be used to engage all modes of communication—visual, vocal and verbal.  The impact of non-verbal communication should not be under-estimated. Visual relates to gestures, facial expressions, and even environment specific behaviours like sitting position around a boardroom table. Simply put, posture, direct eye contact and a relaxed appearance can demonstrate a level of interest and engagement in the topic being discussed. Vocal elements like volume, pace and a succinct delivery of the message, all contribute to improving the impact of the actual content (verbal) that is being delivered. A little emotion or passion in the delivery will hook the audience for sure.

Use energy wisely for strategic interactions requiring extroverted behaviours. Introverts that flex outside their comfort zone for important workplace interactions will quickly deplete their energy.  It’s critical that meetings are scheduled with space in between to re-energize either through some quiet time or by doing some concentrated work during the day.  It’s important for them to recharge regularly to do their best work.

Best of All Worlds
We need to recognize that under the right conditions, introverts can have a powerful impact in the workplace. In today’s turbulent work environment, a calm, focused, introspective professional style can inspire innovation and a higher level of performance individually and in teams.   A healthy balance of both persuasive inspirational extroverts and focused creative problem solving introverts in the workplace can deliver the strongest organizational performance over the long run.

Bernadette Smith is vice-president of talent development solutions with the Canadian Management Centre.

(PeopleTalk Spring 2017)

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