Imagine you’re in a meeting at work. Everyone else is throwing out ideas, talking loudly and debating. You know you should say something but it’s hard to get a word in so you sit in anxious silence.
Then disaster strikes. Your boss looks over at you and says: “What do you think?” In that instant, your brain freezes and you can’t think of a thing to say. If you’ve ever been tongue-tied in a meeting, desperate to escape after-work drinks or stressed out in an open-plan office, chances are you’re an introvert. One quarter to half of us are introverts, depending on which study you look at. Introverts are often misunderstood.
“It’s really about energy,” says Marti Olsen Laney, a psychotherapist and author of “The Introvert Advantage.” Introverts generate energy through reflection and quiet time while an extraverts’ energy is increased by spending time in busy, stimulating places often with lots of people around, according to Olsen Laney.
“Introversion and extroversion are real – and even genetic – and genuinely change the way the world looks to those people,” says Dan Cable, Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School. “The key is not to think about two categories but a continuum,” notes Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and author of “Confidence: The Surprising Truth About How Much You Need And How to Get It.” “Most people are actually in the middle,” he says, adding that each category can have characteristics of the other.
Unlike Asian cultures, which are much more accepting of introverts, the West has long been biased towards extraverts, he says.
The conventional wisdom, backed up by decades of studies, is that extraverts make better leaders. “This idea is based on the false premise that activity equates to productivity, that confidence signals competence,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. A 2011 study by Harvard Business School, the University of Pennsylvania’s Warton School and University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School found that while introverts and extraverts were evenly matched in the general population, 96% of managers and executives displayed extravert qualities.
The researchers also found that although extraverts show many of the strengths people associate with leadership – like decisiveness – the less obvious leadership qualities that introverts display can be more important in day-to-day teamwork. “You really see a pattern of being conscientious, wanting to do a good job, being creative, good at problem solving. They’re really good at one-on-one kinds of work,” says Olsen Laney.
Tazeen Ahmad is one person who has used her introversion to excel in the competitive world of broadcast journalism. “The secret to any success I’ve had has been embracing my introversion,” she says. “It means I process things much more. I think deeper, which often leads to better ideas.” She’s been a foreign correspondent for U.S. network NBC and has won awards for her hard-hitting work as a reporter for Channel 4’s investigations show “Dispatches” in the UK. She says that the stories she tells often deal with terrible loss or big traumatic experiences – and her subjects may have suffered abuse.
“I’ve asked them pertinent, difficult questions. I hope I come across as who I am –authentic and genuine – so they can see that I’m interested in their story, not just as a journalist, but as a person.” Ahmad now regularly shares her wisdom at sell-out classes for introverts at The School of Life in London. Her latest class is about how introverts can network in a way that works for them. “If you go to a networking event and you can walk away with one or two good connections that you feel are going to pay off, rather than 15 that aren’t (that’s success),” she says.
Introverts can often feel overstimulated in meetings and in open-plan offices. “Everything they are doing there drains energy, whereas for an extrovert all those things give them energy,” explains Olsen Laney. In those situations, introverts can find it hard to think or make on-the-spot comments. Olsen Laney says introverts have to develop skills to tell extroverts what is going on with them. “When an introvert is sitting in a meeting and not ‘participating,’ others can read disinterest,” she says. To combat this, she says introverts should practice non-verbal ways of showing they are engaged, like taking notes, or giving silent cues to the people who are talking.
Because they need private time to reflect, Olsen Laney suggests they approach their boss after a meeting, and offer to send their thoughts via email. Introverts can thrive in any work environment, but it’s about knowing what works for you, says Nancy Ancowitz, a business coach and author of “Self-Promotion for Introverts”. She says many of her clients work in very extroverted industries, like sales and trading.
“Reflect upon when you come up with your best ideas, when you do your best work, when you are in your zone. “Most introverts I have worked with find it’s usually about collecting those ideas in alone time when they can write something down or (have) quiet time,” she says.
For Ancowitz’s money, though, the most powerful thing an introvert can do is learn public speaking skills. “The beauty of public speaking is that it’s not hard to learn. As long as you can speak to one person you can speak to a thousand.”