When you think about the kinds of folks who excel at remote work, it’s natural to assume that the people who are most comfortable and successful will be introverts. After all, the image of extroverts has them being the life of the office and enjoying hanging out with everyone. They’re the ones currently aching to get back to the office while introverts are happy to (finally!) be left alone to get their work done. But what if those stereotypes are wrong?
Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, Ph.D., is an author, Certified Speaking Professional, and one of the top global leadership speakers on the subject of introverts. Her latest book is Creating Introvert-Friendly Workplaces: How to Unleash Everyone’s Talent and Performance. Her previous bestselling books include The Introverted Leader, Quiet Influence, and The Genius of Opposites. Here’s some of what she told us about assumptions people make about introverts at work.
What do people get wrong when we talk about introverts at work?
There is still tremendous bias when it comes to introverts in the workplace. Being quiet and reserved can be misinterpreted as having nothing to say. People wrongly surmise that having a low-key facial expression means a lack of interest or motivation. Introverts share that they are surprised to learn how negatively their colleagues or clients perceive them. Some of those negative labels assume introverts are slow, indecisive, angry, bored, or stuck up. These labels can be harmful because we are rejecting and passing over the contributions of at least half of our talent.
A coaching client told me that because she was quiet and listening at a meeting, the team thought she was hatching a nefarious plot with her boss! One of the worst questions you can ask an introvert is, “What’s wrong?” Usually, nothing is wrong. They are just thinking.
A lot of people think introverts are ideal for remote work because they don’t like to interact. What is wrong with that image?
Introverts do thrive in solitude and can focus more without hearing their neighbor’s office chatter. But everything in moderation. I reached out in the early days of the quarantine to some of my introverted clients, just to make sure they were okay. Shane, an introverted leader who was adjusting to leading a team from home, said he missed the informal banter with his fellow IT pros. Working at home full-time for him and so many other introverts isn’t nirvana. And the Zoom Happy Hours that his company scheduled were pretty exhausting on top of a day of conference calls. Shane found that reaching out individually to people was much more satisfying.
One-on-one focused conversations are a place where introverts thrive. We all still need connection. In my research for Quiet Influence, I found that with overuse, every strength an introvert has also can become a weakness. Too much quiet time, for instance, leads to a loss in perspective. When you realize that you are simply recycling the same thoughts in your head and not challenging your ideas, you can get pretty stuck. Then it’s time to reach out for new insights.
If you are a leader, what should you be thinking about to support and leverage your more introverted team members?
Too often, leaders focus only on the work at hand. They pay attention to tasks, project milestones, deadlines, roles, and responsibilities more so than the people and personalities that are keys to getting the work done. Opening up the conversation around the benefits of introversion is one crucial way that leaders, whether introverted, extroverted or ambivert, can empower the introverts on their team to feel comfortable in their skin and embrace their quiet strengths. They can be intentional about starting that discussion and even self-disclosing their own understanding of introverts.
Leaders can put questions like these to their teams: Are we writing people off before giving them the time and space they need to contribute? Are we allowing them to reflect and write down their thoughts before answering essential questions? Are we ensuring every person has the opportunity to participate in meetings?
When they encourage everyone to share information about their introverted or extroverted preferences, their strengths, and how they’d like to contribute to the team, the leader builds trust.
If you are an introvert, what is one thing you should be doing to enhance your working from home experience?
Because you are working virtually and out of the normal flow of face-to-face communication, pay more attention to people’s temperament and flex your style to better connect. Looking through this lens will help you avoid disconnects and build relationships. You can’t always know if someone is an introvert or extrovert but respond to their actions as you hear and see them. As Tony Alessandra’s platinum rule says, “Do unto others as they would like to be done onto.”
Dealing with an extrovert? Extroverts tend to work through their ideas out loud so expect to do some brainstorming. Also, be prepared to do some interrupting if you are okay with that. Extroverts don’t consider it rude. If you are caught by surprise with a question, respond that you need time to consider it. Send short emails and leave concise voice mails if you want them to be paid attention to.
Is the person an introvert? Slow down, pause, and give them time to reflect and respond. Don’t surprise introverts too often with impromptu phone calls. Before meetings, send talking points via email or text to give introverts thinking time. Monitor how much you speak in virtual meetings and encourage introverts to use the chat function to express their ideas.
By adjusting your behavior, even slightly, to play to the preferences of others, you will be perceived as someone easy to work with inside and outside the office.
And if you’re looking to get greater insight into how to better communicate with your team members now that you’re working remotely, check out How to Make Working from Home Work.