“The real power comes from a position of pride ... in who you are. When you have that, you become more effective in job interviews, showing up at meetings, and speaking up.”
— on embracing your introversion, by Susan Cain, author of "QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking"
Susan Cain’s now-famous 2012 TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts,” is one of the most-watched TEDs of all time (even Bill Gates cited it as one of his favorites). In it, she did a masterful job of articulating how introverts were every bit as valuable in the business world as the extroverts who often gained more attention.
Clearly, her research and insights struck a nerve.
Depending on the research you look at, somewhere between 30 to 50% of all people in the workplace are introverts.
And yet, conscious and unconscious biases that favor extroverts have long caused introverts to be misunderstood, overlooked, and devalued. Branding expert and lecturer on introverts at work Richard Etienne put it bluntly: “The workplace was created by extroverts, for extroverts.” (Source: BBC Worklife)
In a workplace defined by extroverts, the introvert’s classic traits of being a good listener, a quiet deep thinker, and someone who puts the focus on others just hadn’t, until recently, commanded the same attention or worth.
But then, an interesting thing happened over the course of the last two-plus years, as we were all forced to leave the office and work with each other virtually. Those same traits that define introverts became just what the workplace needed.
“While extroverts are celebrated for being outgoing, action-oriented and enthusiastic, introverts bring analytical thought and empathy,” Etienne says. “During the pandemic, those skills immediately became incredibly sought after ... They’re good at deep thought and forming personal connection. That was really important during the period when companies were trying to hold onto clients.”
In a 2021 article in Entrepreneur, cognitive behavior coach Robin Buckley, PhD cited these “6 Overlooked Superpowers of Introverts in the Workplace”:
1. Self-sufficiency - Introverts tend to prefer working independently, so they’ll typically work hard at problem solving before involving anyone else. They’re accustomed to self-reliance and relying on their own knowledge and skills to attain a goal. This means they rarely need excessive supervision.
2. Reflectiveness - Preferring to take in information and think before talking or acting, introverts are often the ones to offer well-thought-out insights and solutions, as well as alternate perspectives.
3. Effective social scientists - Introverts are listeners and observers, so they pay close attention to verbal and nonverbal communication to gain a better understanding of people or a situation.
4. Connectedness - Introverts aren’t crazy about superficial conversation. They want to engage with people on a more meaningful level, typically one-on-one or in small groups. Their natural tendency to be good listeners allows them to appreciate other people’s perspectives.
5. Self-awareness - Because they’re comfortable being alone with their own thoughts, introverts are often in touch with their own feelings. This serves them well in the connections they make with individuals.
6. Resilience - I love the way Buckley describes this “superpower”: “Introverts grew up in a world that promoted and applauded extroverted characteristics ... Introverts learn to live in a world not geared for them and survive. They develop strategies and coping mechanisms, which allow them to function in the workforce, rarely needing constant reassurance or praise to keep them motivated.”
Being an introvert myself and having managed introverts throughout my career, I’m fascinated—and heartened—to see the recent change in how introverts are viewed in the workplace. And maybe just as important, how introverts themselves can better appreciate what they have to offer, and how to use their strengths.
Let’s take a closer look at several of the recent changes sparked by working virtually and how, if you’re an introvert, you can use the opportunities—and your innate traits—to grow as a communicator, presenter, or public speaker.
The Listener’s Chance to Shine
I love this example of how the move to virtual work changed people’s perspectives about introverts. It’s relayed by Patty McCord, former head of HR at Netflix, in the same Worklife article ...
“I talked to a woman who’s the VP of Sales at a Fortune 100 company. She’s hard-driving, charismatic. And she said,
‘The craziest thing happened. I had a matrix of skills for what made a great salesperson in my organization: able to control a room, a lot of energy and charisma, confident, blah, blah, blah. And it completely flipped during the pandemic.’
She said that her best salespeople were the ones she had been literally about to fire: the quiet ones who would just get on a call with a client and listen. Now she’s rethinking the whole workforce.”
Honestly, the best communicators are empathetic listeners. So, if you’re an introvert, embrace and develop the listening skills that come so naturally to you. They will serve you well whether you’re making a presentation, speaking in public, or just communicating with coworkers.
The Quiet Thinker’s Chance to Contribute
I remember reading once that extroverts “talk in order to think,” while introverts “think in order to talk.” It rings true for me. If you look at any studied definition of introversion, phrases like “deep thinker,” “reflective,” and “introspective” are mentioned.
Introverts do their best thinking (and by extension, contributing) when they have the time and “space” to process information and develop a considered response. They’re more apt to wait until they feel they have something meaningful to say.
Unfortunately, those traits aren’t usually valued in an extrovert-centric, office environment. Here’s a classic scenario illustrating the contrast between extroverts and introverts in in-person meetings, from a Harvard Business Review article ...
“A program manager calls a meeting to think through a resourcing issue . . . Extroverted thinkers are happy to get new information in a meeting and to start making sense of it by talking through it. But introverted thinkers make their best contributions when they’ve had time to process relevant data and space to choose words carefully and share thoughtful conclusions. So while the extroverted thinkers are buzzing away, the introverted thinkers are quiet, still processing the information.
Extroverts often misinterpret this silence as disagreement, disengagement, or lack of subject-matter expertise, and often don’t make the effort to bring the introverts into the conversation. The meeting ends, people scatter to their next meeting, and the opportunity to think the problem through together has been lost. Over time, the introverts may get demoralized and completely disengage because of their inability to contribute.”
But those meeting dynamics are beginning to change with the switch to virtual work.
Buelow says introverts are less likely to suffer through constant interruptions or being talked over in virtual meetings. “The etiquette of the platform is different. You’re much more aware of if you’re interrupting or talking on top of someone.” She adds that virtually, “there are more tools at your disposal to contribute to the conversation. It’s not just whoever can get a word in edgewise; there’s the chat, ‘raising your hand’, reactions you can send.”
If you’re an introvert, take advantage of the benefits of virtual meetings. And whether you’re attending one virtually or in person, use your natural tendencies to think ahead and prepare, to make it easier to contribute in real time. Here are some ideas ...
Read the meeting agenda and prepare your thoughts ahead of time. If you need time to consider the topic before engaging in a dialogue, this is a crucial step.
Write down one question you’d like to have answered or a point you’d like to introduce on a sticky note, and put it on your laptop or computer screen. That way, you won’t miss a beat when the time is right to chime in.
Practice, out loud, what you want to say. Better yet, practice in front of a coworker or friend and get their feedback.
Rehearse introducing yourself. Not just your name and title, but your specific interest in the meeting’s topic or goal and what you can contribute. A lot of people don’t realize how much the quality of their introduction impacts their effectiveness in the meeting.
Be confident about asking for thinking time. If there’s a question or issue being discussed that you feel you need (alone) time to think about, say so. Remember, one of your key strengths is deep, analytical reflection. Simply say something like, “I think this question deserves further thought. I’d like to get back to you once I’ve had a chance to consider the options.”
The Public Speaker’s Chance ... to Be Introverted
This is a good time to make the important point that being an introvert doesn’t necessarily mean you’re shy. They’re two different things. Shyness is a social anxiety. Introversion is a way of responding to social stimulation. Introverts need quiet, alone time to recharge after a lot of people contact; whereas extroverts “recharge” by being in the center of social stimulation.
I’m an introvert, and I love public speaking. But I have definitely seen how myths about what it takes to be a good public speaker can cause introverts to fear the “stage”—whether it’s making a presentation at work or delivering a keynote at a conference.
Here’s the myth: To be a good public speaker, you need to have a big, theatrical personality, a hilarious comedic delivery, and dance all over your stage.
While theatrics, comedy, and dance moves can be great fun and effective sometimes, you don’t need any of them to be an effective speaker.
I can tell you without a doubt that the single-most important trait for being a good public speaker—especially in a business setting—is to be audience-centric. If you care as much about what they’d benefit from hearing as what you want to say, you’ve taken the first, crucial step to delivering a good presentation or talk.
If you’re an introvert, your natural propensity to put the focus on others sets you up to be audience-centric. Not to mention the fact that if you adopt a service attitude to presenting and public speaking, you’re less likely to focus on your own nerves.
And here’s an interesting thing: While it’s true that introverts typically would rather gather with a few people than attend a big party or mingle in a big crowd, if they feel deeply about something they want to communicate, they sometimes stumble into being great public speakers.In “The Power of Introverts,” Cain held up a few examples of famous introverts who ended up, because of their passions, being fervent and accomplished public speakers ...
"Now in fact, some of our most transformative leaders in history have been introverts. I’ll give you some examples. Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Gandhi—all these people described themselves as quiet, soft-spoken, and even shy. And they all took the spotlight even though every bone in their bodies was telling them not to. And this turns out to have a special power all its own because people could feel that these leaders were at the helm, not because they enjoyed directing others, and not out of the pleasure of being looked at. They were there because they had no choice, because they were driven to do what they thought was right.”
So, when you’re called upon to speak—either by others or by your passion—trust that your strengths as an introvert can be the foundation for success.
Closing Thoughts ...
The changes we’re beginning to see in the workplace for introverts as a result of virtual work are great, but some of the extrovert-centric biases and dynamics mentioned earlier do still exist. Which is all the more reason for introverts to take the initiative to embrace and use their own strengths—and for managers and leaders to support them in doing so.
If you need an extra nudge to believe that the place to start is with your strengths, watch this brief, evidence-based pep talk from researcher, leadership consultant, and author Marcus Buckingham ...
You’ll probably find that remembering to lean into your strengths is an ongoing journey. Along the way, though, there are practical things you can do as an introvert to help you become more successful in situations where communication is key—in meetings, when making presentations, and when speaking in public. If we can help you on your journey, we’re here.