The introvert’s guide to navigating a professional world designed for extroverts
About a month into the economic shutdown that came as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I started to notice something that was, let’s say, peculiar. At least peculiar to me.
I’m an introvert. I certainly don’t deny that. The “stay at home” orders were really not a problem for me or my family. I work from home. My kids are all young and are homeschooled. We live far outside the city. You could say we were very much naturally prepared for the new-but-hopefully-temporary “normal”.
But the extroverts, they weren’t handling it so well.
“I’m going stir crazy!”
“We can’t just stay cooped up in the house forever!”
“I’m really not handling this very well. I need to interact with people!”
Who can blame them? Being forced into a situation so contrary to your nature isn’t ideal. It can smother your creativity, suppress your productivity, and suck the fun out of work.
In other words, extroverts were now having to experience what introverts deal with every single day of “normal” life, pre-pandemic.
Out of sight, out of mind
It’s not hard to see that the world is optimized for social extroverts.
“Fortune favors the bold!”
“History is made by those who show up.”
And these are just the platitudes. It’s far more common for career advice to be centered around increasing your visibility.
“Networking is key to career growth.”
“Volunteer to give the presentation next time. You want the right people to see you.”
“Ask so-and-so out to lunch to talk shop.”
Or what about life advice?
“You gotta put yourself out there if you want to meet someone. Just walk up to him/her and introduce yourself!”
I’m not even saying this is bad advice, sometimes we need to be pushed to do something that doesn’t feel natural to us, to move beyond what we’re comfortable with. There’s a lot of growth to be had outside your comfort zone.
But extroverts are practically never asked to “be more like the introverts” in order to succeed. The world is set up to help them find success.
How can we, as introverts, navigate a professional world designed for extroverts? As leaders, are we ignoring a huge untapped talent pool by optimizing our work environment to appeal so heavily to extroverts?
Note: I realize not all of these options are available to everyone. They aren’t necessarily intended to be used in conjunction … more like a buffet of choices you can choose based on your needs and what’s possible in your situation.
Own you calendar
Every day at 4pm, I have a block on my calendar. It just says “Busy”. I use this time at the end of my workday, before heading into “home” mode, to be by myself and exercise (something I call “stacking”, but that’s a different post).
Though not sacred time, having a block already occupied makes people think twice before asking to schedule a meeting during that block. But at the same time, I can always make an exception in the moment and allow something to be scheduled during that block.
This time allows me to decompress and recharge after days filled with lots of talking (something I like to do, but does zap me of mental energy).
If you find yourself especially sensitive to the demands of synchronous conversation (phone calls, Zoom, in-person, etc.), you can instead look for ways to limit those interactions.
If you were able to reduce each synchronous meeting by 10 minutes each, you might be able to eliminate hours of talk time from your schedule every week. Every little bit helps.
Try to get all the preliminary talk out of the way early by sharing an agenda document where you capture your thoughts about a subject well in advance of a meeting. Sure, when meeting with extroverts, it’s possible they ignore any such “straight to business” tactics, but it will likely work some of the time.
One way to approach this is to fire up your chat client of choice (or email, if that’s all that’s available) and ask “hey, I just saw your meeting invite. I want to be prepared, so can you let me know what this is about?”
When you get a “headline” response, find a way to ask for more detail (but be subtle), and look for opportunities to “talk” more asynchronously.
“It’s about the upcoming launch. I want to be sure we have all our bases covered.”
“Oh cool, got it. I’ve got a document that I’m using to keep track of everything that I’m preparing to do the week of the launch. Would you like me to share that with you?”
“Sure, that’s fine, but let’s still quickly meet to make sure we’re on the same page.”
“No problem, and if you see anything that I’m missing in my document ahead of our meeting, just let me know and I’ll add it.”
Obviously, the person above really just wants to schedule time to think out loud with you, and that’s fine. Remember, you’re not trying to optimize the world around the introvert personality. We’re just trying to meet somewhere in the middle, if possible.
A couple of weeks ago, my family and I were out taking some food to some friends. They invited us into the backyard to hang out for a bit, and, after 4 months of self-isolation, we decided to accept the invite. We ended up staying for several hours, and really loved every minute of it.
But the next day, after work, I told my wife that I had felt so tired all day. I described it as “almost feeling sick”.
I know this feeling well. I love my friends and family, and I love being with them.
But I know myself. And I know that when I’m a social glutton, they next day I’ll get the metaphorical “stomach ache”.
Recognizing the patterns in your own life can help you adjust and accommodate for them.
If you need to psych yourself up for an upcoming social interaction or presentation, take the time to do it.
If you need to chill after a day of wall to wall meetings, take the time to do it.
Know yourself. Take the time.
What can leaders do for introverts?
Although it’s nice to think we can simply plan and strategize for our own balance in the workplace, a bad leader can ruin even your best plans.
So how can leaders help introverts thrive in the workplace?
It wouldn’t be particularly useful to switch from over-optimizing for extroverts to over-optimizing for introverts. You’d be trading one extreme for another.
But are there compromises that could be made that would make the workplace more appealing to introverts?
At the end of the day, introverts want what everyone else wants: a fair shake at a successful career, a workplace that doesn’t feel like it was designed to torture them, and the kind of care and consideration that extroverts have enjoyed for all of modern workplace history.
Stop making “be a people person” a criteria for employment when what you really want is a great engineer, or accountant, or designer, or whatever. Hire for the skills you need, and if introverts aren’t “compatible with our culture”, then change your culture.
Have more (and better) conversations with the introverts in your organization. Don’t expect them to ask for it. Ask them what they need. Just be prepared to really hear them.
Consider if that meeting really could just be an email.
Learn to trust more, control less, and grow as a leader.
Keep pushing them to venture outside their comfort zone. But make sure you’re creating an environment that forces you to push extroverts to do the same thing.
By making a workplace that is more welcoming to introverts, without making it miserable for the extroverts, you open yourself up to all the wonderful qualities of introverted folks.
And hey, the world is changing. Remote work is becoming more and more common, and you might find that pushing yourself and your organization to create a more welcoming work environment for introverts will help prepare you for a future that isn’t so exclusively optimized for extroverts.