Opening Up the Introverts in Your Business
“Once you can get them to talk, they are so interesting. But it’s hard!”
This woman was not talking about captured spies or members of the mafia, but rather that [sometimes] quiet bunch who tend to think [= overthink] before speaking, also known as “introverts.”
Full disclosure: I am a card-carrying introvert. This article is full of generalities; be aware that ambiverts have tendencies of both introverts and extroverts. I’m friendly and outgoing (as are many introverts, especially in the Southern C community) so sometimes people from the extrovert side don’t believe I’m not one of them. Once the word is out, they ask me for help…in getting introverts to talk.
While it seems to me the most wonderful thing when people don’t talk too much, apparently this reticence to speak is a source of frustration for some very nice people. More importantly, the world needs ideas and solutions from ALL types of people, not just the chattering classes.
Introverts are not necessarily shy or socially awkward; those are different personality qualities. What introverts share is having a lower stimulation threshold: conversation, especially the animated kinds, requires us to expend more energy. This can drain us.
That’s the key difference: extroverts are energized by social interactions.
The Value of the Introvert in Your Business
We are all indebted to Susan Cain’s brilliant work on introversion (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) as she established the legitimacy and value of both introverts and extroverts. She spoke for thousands, if not millions, when she gave example after example of how insightful contributions of quieter professionals were often overlooked in the corporate world, to the detriment of both the organization and society. One example involved ignored warnings in meeting after meeting up and down Wall Street and in Washington, DC, about the impending economic implosion of 2008, better known as the Great Recession.
Ms. Cain spells out typical meeting dynamics in an example about the subarctic survival simulation used in the classroom at the Harvard Business School. The simulation typically unfolds beginning with a plane crash in a barren, ice-capped wilderness. The surviving group of six to eight students must decide whether to stay put or attempt to hike to safety. They have to rank 15 items in importance according to their chances of survival. The point of the exercise is to see how the team determines priorities.
Turns out the loudest, most extroverted students usually dominated, #nosurprisehere. This happened despite the fact these students rarely had relevant expertise. Sometimes students would take control by saying, “Well, I once hiked in Yosemite, so I have some knowledge here.” Then these loquacious students would insist they knew what to bring, picking—yes—the bottle of booze “to keep warm.” And thus they would die [in this exercise].
It’s a great illustration of how many teams typically operate. Certain people (not calling any names) —usually the extroverted talkers —dominate, even when they have the wrong answer (as in bringing the booze when your plane crashes). Meanwhile others, possibly with more intelligent, relevant input are not heard.
This happens in two ways: the introvert feels intimidated or that it’s not worth it to speak up or the person will speak up and no one listens, she gets talked over or ignored.
That’s why “getting introverts to talk” can be challenging.
Suggestions for Getting the Introverts in Your Business to Talk
You can always tell an extrovert because she likes to “think out loud.” Introverts can think better if they have some time to process their ideas before talking about them. Having a “heads up” advance notice that you would like their input is helpful.
For example, you could send an email to Mr. Introvert saying, “I want your input on this new business case, I’ll be by later this morning to chat about it.”
It’s also important that the more talkative person be quiet and allow space for others to speak up. It can be a matter of being comfortable with silence now and then.
What introverts are [usually] good at
- Thinking about things (perhaps too much)
- Preparing a presentation…or even a conversation
- Asking questions
- Meaningful conversation
- In-depth analysis
What introverts are usually not good at
- Telling extended stories
- Chit chat
- Sparkling dinner party repartee
- Thinking on their feet
If you work with introverts, here are some suggestions to access their ideas:
- In online meetings, encourage responses in the chat box.
- Break the team into pairs or small groups to discuss issues and report back to the larger group. This can be done both live and online.
- Put a question out to the group and allow each person a minute or two to give an opinion on the topic.
- Ask introverts to be the scribe or timekeeper to help increase their visibility.
- On conference calls and online meetings, ask for input from east to west by state (or country) or ask in alphabetical order of names.
Anton Chekhov spoke for most introverts when we wrote, “True happiness is impossible, without solitude.”
That may sound like a recipe for loneliness, but introverted souls need quiet time to be at their best. So if your favorite introvert seems not in the mood to chat, they probably just need some space to recharge.