Can introverts get ahead in the workplace?
Are you an introvert? If not, someone you know probably is. Studies show that one-third to one-half of Americans are introverts, according to Susan Cain, author of the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”
While no one has an entirely introverted or extroverted personality type, people tend to be more of one or the other, experts say. Someone more introverted is energized by time alone, is an excellent listener, thinks carefully before speaking or acting, and prefers to express feelings in writing instead of talking, according to Beth Buelow, the Tacoma, Wash.-based founder of The Introvert Entrepreneur.
If you’re an introvert looking to gain ground in your career, you may be sitting on a gold mine. Leadership in the American workplace is imbalanced, some experts say, and in need of more introverted styles.
Cain says our value system hinges on “the Extrovert Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” Introversion is now “a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology,” she writes. And while extroversion is “an enormously appealing personality style,” it’s become an oppressive standard that most people feel they must conform to, she says.
Ray Williams, president and CEO of Ray Williams Associates in Vancouver, Canada, says our culture portrays strong leaders as men who are aggressive, outgoing and dominant—a stereotype perpetuated by movies, TV and the press. We have a preference for leaders like Donald Trump, he says, even if their performance records are lackluster.
“The status and reputation of quiet, introverted leadership is undervalued and underappreciated,” Williams explains in a Psychology Today article. “Despite decades of research on leadership pointing to other less demonstrative skills that are needed, extroverted leaders are still favored in recruiting and promoting decisions. Yet recent research reveals that today’s workplace may be more suited to introverted, quiet leaders.”
Making the most of quiet strengths
Williams says our reliance on extroverted leadership styles has led to business failures such as those on Wall Street. The workplace needs a better balance of introverts and extroverts, he says, not just at the leadership level, but throughout the ranks.
The strengths of an introvert, such as being a good listener, are not always obvious. Yet such skills are invaluable to employers, and introverts are in a prime spot to capitalize on them, experts say.
Growing awareness about what it really means to be an introvert is opening a window of opportunity for so-called quiet leaders, according to Buelow. “Being an introvert doesn’t mean you are shy, or don’t like people,” she says.
Buelow offers several steps introverts can take to highlight their talents and move their careers forward:
- Get comfortable discussing your accomplishments and strengths. Offer stories and examples of how you contributed to a past success. Share the spotlight with your colleagues, your project or process, and the company, to keep it from feeling self-oriented.
- Recognize strengths you can cultivate and use to promote yourself. Listening, focus, making one-on-one connections, introspection and establishing safety all lead to increased transparency and communication.
- Focus on your listening skills. If you’re more of an introvert, you’re likely to be a good listener, one of the most valuable traits of a leader. Introverts absorb information and consider it from all angles before taking action.
A balance of extroverts and introverts is needed for a team to succeed, experts say. Managers and employers can achieve that balance in a variety of ways. During the hiring process, Williams suggests using profile assessments that include emotional intelligence and personality style.
Buelow recommends using a strengths-based approach to hiring and evaluation. “Recognize where [introverts’] thoughtful, calm, observant energy can be an asset and encourage those employees to step into leadership roles,” she says.
The language employers use to recruit should show they want people with different work styles, as well, Buelow says. She’s learned that many introverts try to be more extroverted so they get considered for leadership roles. “This certainly expanded their comfort zone. But it also led to less job satisfaction and higher burn-out, since they had to act like someone they weren’t in order to be accepted,” she explains.
Kristina Cowan is a freelance journalist.