The first thing is to hold back with the labels. Too much pondering whether your colleague is an introvert, or shy, or a highly sensitive person, or a mix of them all, or maybe just quieter than you, is not that helpful.
But good bosses and leaders are aware of people’s patterns and preferences, and are sensitive to their needs and responses. Understanding what makes someone tick is a key to bringing out the best in them.
Through playing to their strengths, and respecting and accommodating their different working styles, you enable people to flourish.
With colleagues who fall into the broad category of introvert, it can be too easy to make false assumptions about their behaviour and what they have to offer.
False assumption 1: They aren’t good with an audience
Many introverts are excellent at presenting and at addressing groups of people, and sometimes are more comfortable doing this than making everyday conversation.
Because they don’t lead with their personality or want the spotlight to be on them, they can focus on the audience and the message, and on perfecting the techniques which will make their talk persuasive and engaging.
- Give sufficient information and notice so they can plan and prepare — just like anyone else.
- Introverts in particular need to manage their energy levels. When they are making a presentation, ensure that before and afterwards they have time and space to be quiet and unchallenged.
False assumption 2: They can’t contribute in meetings
Introverts prefer listening to participating — hang on there, wait a minute. Since when has listening been a non-participatory activity? Someone who listens, analyses and reflects on ideas makes an invaluable contribution to a discussion.
- Don’t undermine this strength by making a team member feel uncomfortable and inadequate. Putting them on the spot by directly asking for a response is likely to make them freeze. Find a way of including them, by reference and acknowledgement.
- Give advance notice or an agenda of points to be discussed.
- Observe their body language. You can tell by, say, an inclination of the head or a slight parting of the mouth or a slight leaning forward, that someone has a point to make. Encourage them to speak by making eye contact, smiling and raising your eyebrows.
- Follow up the meeting with a one-to-one conversation or email exchange.
- You could also vary the type of meeting you have, so that people who are more withdrawn and retiring don’t always have to deal with large numbers of people. Introverts can contribute more comfortably in small groups.
- Ideas and information can sometimes be exchanged in writing and other forms of virtual communication.
False assumption 3: They are too slow to be productive
Taking the time to think things through and responding with caution, rather than coming up with instant responses, often results in better decisions. Becoming immersed in one task at a time has many advantages over multi-tasking.
- Assign an introvert team member projects which require close focus on a clearly-defined problem or area.
- Monitor the messages you might be sending about ways of working. Your body language and the way you speak, and the way you respond to the more dominant personalities in the workplace, might indicate that you favour an out-there style.
False assumption 4: They aren’t good with people
Introverts can have fine people skills. They form strong relationships and are good communicators. They can be uncomfortable in large, noisy groups (mmm, don’t we all just love that office party at the next table?) and may dislike making small talk (don’t we all need a little help with that?).
- Encourage an introvert colleague to use their skills in strategic networking. Rather than coming away from an event or conference with a suitcase-full of business cards and dozens of promises of follow-ups (yeah right), suggest that they concentrate on making one or two firm contacts.
- Value the observations and insights which an introvert can offer. Their preference for watching and listening can result in a sound understanding of relationships and office politics.
- Acknowledge their dislike for socialising without excluding them. Perhaps you could suggest that they come along just for half an hour, which prevents them always having to come up with an excuse.
- You could sometimes choose a social context or activity which suits their preference. And just a thought — maybe among even those happy extroverts on your team there may be just a few who would much rather not join in the animal-themed fancy dress night, or the paintballing weekend, or the downing-shots’ competition at that new bar…
False assumption 5: They can’t handle a normal work environment
Shared working spaces and open offices can be noisy and distracting, an environment that many people may dislike.
- You could provide quiet spaces for undisturbed work when required.
- Encourage the use of noise-reducing headphones.
- Maybe you could have a workplace-wide agreed signal that people can display when they really need to work without interruption.
Ask your team member to come up with a suggestion of what that signal might be, and for any other thoughts they have on making the area conducive to productive work. Introverts tend to be good at ideas, and everyone can benefit from what they have to say.