Introverts’ Struggles — and Strategies for Success — on the Job

Nancy Ancowitz is a business communication coach who helps clients with vital career-building and leadership skills, and is author of Self-Promotion for Introverts®. I recently connected with her to learn more about strategies introverts can use to succeed on the job and how introverts and extroverts can work well together.

Here’s what she had to say:

What do introverts tend to struggle with in the workplace?

1. Having insufficient time or space to think.

Introverts struggle with the fast pace of many organizations and offices without walls can be rough for introverts who prefer to go inward to do their best thinking. If you’re an introvert, you struggle with finding quiet time to gather your thoughts, particularly at brainstorming meetings.

Find quiet places to think, and take breaks just for a change of scenery and a chance to gather your thoughts. Ask for agendas prior for meetings to help you prepare your key points.

2. Being misunderstood.

Introverts can be perceived as aloof and withholding, since they are less likely than extroverts to put all their cards on the table. Many introverts work at places at which non-stop socializing is the norm — and if you’re an introvert, you have to catch your breath to do your best.

Avoid being misunderstood by making one-on-one appointments, possibly over lunch or coffee, to get to know your colleagues over time.

3. Being undervalued.

Introverts are less likely to toot their own horns, wanting their work to speak for itself. Ultimately, while you may have many accomplishments, if no one knows about them, you are unlikely to get the recognition or compensation you deserve.

You can beat this struggle by making a concerted effort to get your name attached to your accomplishments. If you’re a good writer, write about your areas of expertise for publications. If you’re decent at public speaking, look for opportunities to facilitate meetings, moderate panels and give talks.

How do teams benefit from having a mix of introverted and extroverted members?

Introverts and extroverts offer different strengths. For example, extroverts can be free-flowing in a brainstorming process — able to see possibilities emerge out loud, as they speak. Yet, large-group brainstorming isn’t a sweet spot for introverts. On the other hand, it’s in examining the ideas that emerge and manifesting them that the introverts’ strengths shine.

With their appreciation for research and deep thinking, introverts can often spot potential pitfalls before they happen. Many organizations benefit from their complement of cheerleaders and lifeguards, snorkelers and deep sea divers.

How can introverted employees find the right balance between self-promotion and bragging?

When it comes to your accomplishments, just state the facts, and when feasible, do so in writing. Of course, give others credit whenever it’s due — while remembering to give the fair share to you.

For example, an effective self-promoter spreads the word about the value her project brings its beneficiaries, rather than touting her strengths and putting anyone down along the way. A braggart does the opposite: he has his eyes so fixated on the prize that he often forgets about what a bore he can be when talking about his stunning wins (constantly).

What are some specific tips you have for introverts working with extroverts?

In meetings:
  • Arrive well rested and refreshed to help prevent sensory overload.
  • Obtain (or create) an agenda for a meeting in advance so you can think about it, and jump in once you’re with your colleagues.
  • Just as you prefer to think through your ideas before you talk about them, extroverts often like to work through theirs out loud and bounce them off others. Expect to do some brainstorming at a meeting with extroverts.
  • While you may normally prefer to wait your turn to speak, just jump in when speaking at a meeting with extroverts. You can interject by leaning forward and saying the name of the last person to speak, and in more formal meetings, putting up a hand or finger to the facilitator to signal that you’d like your turn.
In one-on-one interactions:
  • Be prepared to discuss a few light topics of conversation (e.g., weather, weekend plans, vacation spots) as a way of connecting with your extroverted conversation partners.
  • Be patient with extroverts’ questions that seem invasive. Rather than critiquing their questions, just offer whatever you’re comfortable sharing, and then turn the spotlight back on them.
  • If you’re stumped by a question, respond that you need a moment to think about it or that you’ll follow up with an answer later.
In general:
  • Keep in mind extroverts tend to be action-oriented and rely on the outside world for input and stimulation. Balance that with your more inward focus.
  • Recognize extroverts’ needs to have plenty of varied activities and people to talk to; an extrovert may be bored by an in-depth discussion behind closed doors with one person on a single topic.
  • Just as you may have deep knowledge about a few topics, appreciate extroverts’ breadth of knowledge on many topics.
  • Avoid sending extroverts long emails or leaving detailed phone messages. (Many busy introverts will appreciate this too!) Extroverts may skim or only focus on the first few words.

What are some specific tips you have for extroverts working with introverts?

In meetings:
  • Distribute an agenda and ask for their input privately, by email, prior to a meeting to give them time to compose their thoughts.
  • Welcome introverts to state their opinions, but avoid putting them on the spot.
  • Consider meeting with your introverted colleagues in a quiet space to help ensure minimal interruptions.
In one-on-one interactions:
  • Limit chit chat to the beginning of a conversation, and get to the more substantive parts more quickly.
  • Avoid asking introverts questions they may experience as too personal or invasive. Be patient with their need to get to know you over time.
  • Let introverts finish speaking, count to three, and then speak; do not fill in the pauses.
In general:
  • Just as you may have a breadth of knowledge on many topics, appreciate introverts for their depth of knowledge about a few topics.
  • Make appointments with introverts rather than dropping by unannounced.
  • Respect introverts’ need for private space. Do not stand too close during a conversation or reach into their space.
  • Remember that what you find stimulating (e.g., multitasking) may be overwhelming for introverts. Many of them need to quietly focus on one thing at a time.
  • Give introverts time alone to do their best thinking and allow for sufficient breaks during meetings.
  • Recognize that introverts tend to undersell their accomplishments and potential contributions.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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