How to work better with introverts

Peter Agnew

Want more from your team? Tap into the talent of the quieter members in your office, writes PETER AGNEW.


Workplaces, the way we meet, the way we teach, and the way we interact in a team are designed for extroverts. Open plan, group brainstorming, team projects and high-profile "celebrity" leaders are all part of the rise of the "extrovert ideal", which is growing in contemporary society.

 This tendency is permeating our culture to the detriment of introverts and impedes their significant contribution to our teams, workplaces and lives.

 Introverts usually prefer listening; they innovate and create, dislike self-promotion, and favour working on their own rather than working in teams.

 So how do we capitalise on the strengths of introverts and create a balance in our workplace?

 I spend a lot of time developing people's skills to help them better understand each other's behavioural style when interacting. I work with loud, ambitious groups; the quieter , softer-spoken groups; and the groups with a strong mix of both outspoken and under-spoken behaviour styles.

 The "extrovert ideal" is one I find strongly encouraged in most workplaces. We're subliminally and explicitly encouraged to be "open" and generate charisma, to exude confidence, and to never admit "loner" tendencies or shyness. Susan Cain's excellent bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking takes on, and then effectively dismantles, this mythos.


 Loss of insight

 Cain makes a convincing case that we undervalue introverts to such a degree that we lose an enormous amount of valuable insight that only they can provide.

 Consider the last meeting you attended. While you might think everyone's voice was heard, very often it is only the loudest, extroverted attendees who contribute when around a conference table. Few meeting organisers have learned to reach out to introverts by encouraging written ideas and contributions. As a result, we all pay the price by missing out on valuable input that is often more considered in nature.

 I agree with Cain's argument that we undervalue introverts, but I also would argue that it is worthwhile helping introverts to become more outgoing. I encourage them to step up and be commanding and pioneering from time to time, particularly if aspects of their job requires some of these behaviours. I would also argue that some introverted tendencies are necessary in top executives, and I spend just as much time teaching "celebrity" leaders to be more humble, less outspoken, and more considered in their decision making.

 White it's tempting to think of introversion and extroversion as two groups into which we can neatly sort everyone, that is not the case. Here's the key - introversion is not a synonym for "shy" and extroversion is not a synonym for "outgoing".


 How to work better with introverts

  • Understand that introverts thrive in environments that are not overstimulating; surroundings in which they can think before they speak.
  • If you want to get the best in a brainstorm session with your team, don't simply throw them into a meeting and assume you're hearing everyone's ideas. Allow people to work alone first with workshop agendas or questions before coming to work in a group.
  • Introverts are careful, reflective thinkers who can tolerate the solitude that idea-generation requires. Many creative people are introverts who are most creative in the quiet.
  • Give your introverted staff the space they need. Be mindful that they may need to recharge while alone.
  • Realise that our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our "heed-takers" more than ever to ensure a balanced outcome.
  • Recognise introversion as a strong and important personality trait for healthy workplace.


Peter Agnew works for People Development Australia, a business that coaches leaders in professional service firms.