Are you an introvert or an extrovert? If you’re not sure, consider the last time you spent several hours in a crowd—whether at a conference, networking event or party. When it was over, did you feel energized and ready to take on the world? Or did you feel spent and ready to curl up in bed with a good book? If the former, you’re probably an extrovert; if the latter, you’re likely an introvert. Introverts aren’t necessarily shy (although many are). Introverts draw their energy from being alone, while extroverts get energy from being with others.
Introverts have been in the news lately thanks to a new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. A former corporate lawyer turned author (and a self-professed introvert), Cain has garnered a lot of press, including a recent Time Magazine cover story that sang the praises of introverts in the business world.
Why does introversion matter to business? Cain contends that our society’s bias toward extroversion wastes the talent and energy of the one-third of Americans who are introverts. If you’re not harnessing the power of the introverts in your business, you might be wasting talent and energy that could make your business more innovative and more competitive.
How can you help your introverted employees innovate more successfully?
Listen to their instincts. Introverts are by nature more cautious and fearful than extroverts, and less likely to embrace new ideas instantly. That doesn’t mean they’re less likely to embrace new ideas—just that they need time to think through their ramifications. (Warren Buffett is one introvert whose aversion to risk has paid off.) Instead of pooh-poohing the qualms your introverted employees may have, why not put them in charge of working through best- and worst-case scenarios?
Leave them alone. Interruptions are the bane of the modern workplace—and the enemy of innovation. Cain cites studies showing that people who have uninterrupted time to think or practice their art (whether playing the violin or writing code) get better and accomplish more. Help employees limit interruptions by keeping “reply all” emails to a minimum, letting them shut office doors without being ostracized, or setting days (or hours) each week when staff can work uninterrupted by phone, email or other distractions.
Give them space. The hot trend in modern workplaces, communal workspace, has progressed from the “cube farms” of the 90s to the “open offices” of the early 2000s to the current setup at many tech companies where employees sit elbow-to-elbow at long tables. This may work for certain tasks, but if you want introverted employees to get creative, you need to create private spaces. Set aside meeting rooms, break rooms or just comfortable corners with couches and chairs where people can talk, sit or just think.
Brainstorm differently. In group brainstorming sessions, extroverts shine while introverts fade into the background. To level the playing field, try gathering ideas from participants before the meeting (by email), then reading them out loud. Also be aware of who’s holding back and call on those participants so a few voices don’t dominate the conversation. Technology can also help introverts collaborate. Use an intranet, internal Facebook page or productivity software where people can share ideas online, and you’ll find plenty of introverts “speaking up.”
“I believe that introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, and that introverts today are roughly where Western women were in the 1950s and 60s,” Cain writes on her website, The Power of Introverts. “[They are] too often discounted because of an attribute that goes to the core of who they are, but poised on the edge of great change.” Don’t discount the introverts on your team. Use their skills to build your business, and you, too, could be poised for great change.