How to flourish as an introvert in an extrovert’s world.
Did you know that research suggests that roughly a third to half of all people in the workplace are introverts? That’s a significant number of your friends and family and team members. If you look around and don’t find the numbers adding up, don’t dismiss it right away. Here’s the other thing that research throws up – it’s difficult to tell introverts clearly because many of them simply feel the need to pretend to be extroverts. They do this because they are used to seeing systems and processes around them that equate being extroverted – read: speaking up, visibly passionate, even aggressive – with being successful.
We also carry preconceived notions of who is an introvert. (Before you read further, ask yourself who an introvert is). We look for these visible markers and then bucket people. However, it isn’t that simple. Author Susan Cain, for example, in her popular TED talk, ‘The power of introverts’ (http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts/transcript?language=en), busts one of the myths around introverts, saying that there is a difference between being shy and introverted:
“Shyness is about fear of social judgment. Introversion is more about, how do you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation. So extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation, whereas introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments. Not all the time — these things aren’t absolute — but a lot of the time.”
So how then do you tell if someone is an introvert or not? And then what can you do to ensure that you are creating a space for her to flourish and not one where she feels the need to pretend to be someone else?
Lynette’s message is a great start on how to approach this. Please read on…
Imagine being bombarded with constant conversation, where noise hurts your ears and “catch-up” with your manager inspires nausea and anxiety. Where you internalise and overthink every conversation, statement and nuance. Where you play arguments and possible outcomes out in your head before they happen so that you are prepared for any eventuality. Those awkward encounters with people where you are blunt, say the wrong things or blurt out random statements and then launch into an explanation of what you really meant that just makes it sound worse. Phone calls, meetings and small talk are the dreaded horrors that nightmares are made of and people generally perceive you to be shy, unfriendly and inept. If you can relate to this, you are very likely an introvert.
This is my world!
Don’t get me wrong, I love being me. I embrace who I am with open arms. This post is not about feeling sorry for me, or about how we as introverts can be “better”. This is about realising my personal and daily battle to “fit in”.
Introverts have several qualities that can be of great value and it is my view that the cost of those qualities can be summed up in my first paragraph. Why start with the negative you may wonder? It’s good to get the bad out of the way first so we can focus on the great.
Fear of small talk
Introverts typically dislike small talk and this can be a very positive thing in the work place. Our secluded natures allow us to generally be more than happy to focus on the task at hand and this makes us pretty productive. We are generally most happy in a quiet corner where we can disappear into our own thoughts and “zone out” while getting tons and tons of work done.
Honest “tell it like it is” people
Introverts tend to be fairly straight forward and blunt. We will tell it like it is, and don’t beat around the bush or sugar coat the facts. We don’t feel the need to “fake it till you make it” and what you see is what you get. While this may be intimidating to some, rest assured that introverts will be some of the most honest and trustworthy people you will meet (mostly because they have no time for small talk and gossip).
The Thinker. The Listener.
Introverts think A LOT. Like literally, we never stop! We internalise every single thing and think it through, analysing what it might have meant, and how we should/ should not have reacted. This makes us great problem solvers. Give an introvert a problem your team is facing and a couple of hours to think and they would have worked out every eventuality and the best course of action to take. Different from brain storming or spit balling ideas, these are well thought out, planned options where all the pros and cons are weighed and all elements are considered.
Quiet, but a killer in writing
Despite the fact that Introverts never stop thinking, we are actually very quiet. Of course amongst close friends and family you may battle to shut us up, but in the workplace filled with acquaintances and distractions, we tend to withdraw almost completely. This means that we don’t speak unless we have something worthwhile to say (we have already filtered out the conversation, and considered possible outcomes before we have even opened our mouths). Introverts also prefer to write because we can articulate better when we can ponder about what we are trying to say and aren’t faced with the overwhelmed expectation of a quick answer. Given the opportunity to put it in writing, we will have all our ducks in a row and catalogued for you in no time.
Unfortunately, the introverts’ qualities are often overlooked simply because we don’t get the chance to show them. In a microwave generation, the average person has had to shine and sparkle on the outside to get ahead (regardless of talent or skill) and since introverts notoriously shy away from attention that can sometime put us at the back of the line. “You have to sell yourself to succeed” is the new norm and for introverts that idea is abhorrent and extremely difficult to pull off. So where does that leave us?
My tips for how to manage being an introvert in an extrovert’s world:
1. First and foremost, accept who you are
It has taken me many years to understand who I am, and why I seemed different than most. That understanding (and the knowledge that I am not alone) has given me the freedom to accept who I am, and to be happy and proud to be me.
2. Don’t try to change
With that acceptance comes the next point – don’t try to change who you are. Of course, we all need to grow and learn but you will fail miserably if you try to change who you are fundamentally in order to “fit in”.
3. Let your work shine, instead of you!
I can promise you, no matter how daunting and impossible it may feel – forget about trying to force yourself to be in the limelight and just zone out and focus on what you do best. Somewhere someone will see your work and you will be noticed.
4. Take one step at a time
We have to have meetings, phone calls and small talk conversations. Try to space out your interactions so that you have time to regroup before you get to the point of overload. Something as simple as making a cup of tea or taking a walk to get water can calm you down and top-up your energy.
Just breathe, and do it. We are always going to have to do things that make us uncomfortable, like presenting at a conference or leading a meeting. Just take a deep breath, calm your soul and go with it. You will not be able to stop the anxiety or nerves, but powering through will give you a sense of accomplishment that you can be proud of.
6. Speak up
This is one of the hardest things to do, but you must. Speak up! Don’t allow your introversion to control you and not speak up when you have an opinion or something important to say. Believe that people actually do want to hear what you have to say, but that they won’t necessarily think to ask (for them, raising their opinion comes naturally so they won’t realise you were waiting to be asked for yours)
7. Have a happy place/ hobby
We tend to overthink, and we tend to get a little negative. It’s important to have a place you can go, or a hobby of some kind that calms you. Whether its art, reading or a cup of tea and your favourite couch – you need a place where you can take your mind off of thinking, zone out and just relax. This is your form of recharging so if you don’t do it, you will burn out.
8. Find people that get you
We will always meet people that don’t understand us, most especially in the work place. You need people around you that function as pillars, who totally get you and keep you grounded. They love you when you forget to love yourself and they remind you of who you are, and that that’s ok. There is nothing worse than a support structure that is trying to turn you into something you aren’t because of preconceived notions of how the world works.
Working with introverts
As leaders, we need to accommodate all personality types, in the same way that we should accommodate all races, religions and sexual preferences. We need to figure out how to give everyone an enabling place to grow and how to get the best from introverts in the workplace. A few simple considerations can be made to shift the workplace culture towards celebrating all personality types.
1. Be real
Introverts are extremely adept at reading body language and can usually smell fake a mile away. Try to be frank and truthful. If you praise us – mean it. If you reprimand us, do so away from the crowd – we will take it to heart and think about it for days so know that we take it very seriously.
2. A little understanding goes a long way
Take the time to understand the way an introvert functions. Something as simple as prompting an introvert for feedback during a meeting will allow them the space to speak. Introverts prefer a quite environment and will likely choose the most secluded space possible and zone out – they aren’t being antisocial, they are trying to function.
3. Time to think and plan
Introverts shine when we have time to think. We need time to process and gear ourselves up for tasks / meetings. Give fair warning wherever possible, and allow us the time to ponder important questions.
Introverts generally come across as soft spoken and quite, and in a pretty loud environment we often go under the radar. By the time we speak up, we have clearly thought through what we want to say. Our conversation will generally be frank, to the point and free of small talk so take note of what we say.
If you are reading this, and for the first time realising that there are others like you – welcome to being an introvert. I hope that knowing and understanding yourself will make you happy and proud to be you.
For everyone – I hope that this small view into the life of an introvert will inspire you to make the effort to appreciate our unique differences, and celebrate them.
Cheers, from someone who is proudly me – proudly introvert!
Many thanks to Lynette for sharing such a wonderfully honest message, which I am sure that many of you will be able to relate to.
At Ndiema, we take pride in fostering an inclusive work place and building teams with diverse backgrounds and skill sets.
So, we need to question some of the assumptions we are making about people and personality types and introspect about how much we are able to identify and appreciate differences on this front.
Do write in with your thoughts and suggestions on what we could do differently.
I look forward to hearing your perspectives.