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Advice for Introverts: How to Thrive in the Business World

By: Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, Ph.D.
Last updated 9/11/2014

What does it mean to be an introvert—a quiet, thoughtful, unflashy professional— in today’s business world?  According to my research—a two-and-a-half year national study—four out of five introverts say extroverts are more likely to get ahead in their workplace.

Introverts struggle with multiple challenges at work.  Because of their low-key personalities, they regularly undersell themselves, refrain from voicing their ideas, and lack the social networks that can help them get ahead.  The result:  They feel ignored, marginalized, and misunderstood.  Over 40% say they would like to change their introverted tendencies, but don’t know how to begin.

The good news is that introversion can be managed. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy, but with time and practice, introverts can learn to build on their quiet strength and succeed.

What is introversion, anyway?
Introverts may be a quiet group in the workplace, but by all accounts they outnumber extroverts. Even many high-powered executives—a full 40%—describe themselves as introverts, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates and uber-investor Warren Buffett. President Obama may be an introvert as well.
 
Unlike shyness, a product of anxiety or fear in social settings, introversion is a key part of one’s personality—a hardwired orientation.  Introverts process information internally, keep personal matters private, and avoid showing emotion.

Here are some basic differences between introverts and extroverts:
Extroverts: 
Talk first; think later
Introverts: Think first; talk later

Extroverts: Seek out other people
Introverts: Prefer going solo

Extroverts: Tend to be “babbling brooks;” people often tune them out
Introverts: Don’t speak up too often; people tend to tune in when they do

Extroverts: Draw energy from other people
Introverts: Are energized by time spent alone

Some additional introvert behaviors:
• Introverts seek depth over breadth.
They like to dig deep—delving into issues and ideas before moving on to new ones. They are drawn to meaningful conversations—not superficial chit-chat—and know how to tune in and listen to others.

• They prefer writing to talking. On the job, they opt for e-mail over the telephone and stop by only when necessary. They are averse to excessive conversation and many gravitate toward social networking Web sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

• They are usually quiet, reserved, and low-key. They have no desire to be the center of attention, preferring instead to fly below the radar. Even in heated conversations or circumstances, they tend to stay calm—at least on the outside—and to speak softly and slowly.

• Introverts can experience “people exhaustion” that results in an assortment of ailments at work—headaches, backaches, stomachaches, etc.—yet feel fine off the job.

• They may have difficulty saying no.  They find it equally difficult to ask for help or direction. As a result, they frequently feel overloaded with projects and deadlines—and their on-the-job performance and work-life balance suffer as a result.

Moving onward—and upward
There is no magic bullet for managing introversion. But introverts can learn how to thrive in today’s noisy business world and workplace. The goal is not to change one’s personality or natural work style, but rather to embrace it and expand on it.

If you are an introvert who wants to move ahead, follow the “4 Ps:"
1. Preparation (devising a game plan)
2. Presence (focusing on the moment)
3. Push (stretching and growing)
4. Practice (rehearsing and refining new skills)

Here are seven tips for getting started:

Have a game plan
When it comes to the “people” part of your job, never just wing it.  Prepare for high-stakes meetings and conversations by anticipating possible questions and rehearsing your responses. Just as you strategize for key projects and tasks, you need to plan ahead for connecting with people—and to take regular breaks to refuel your energy.

Communicate early and often
It’s easy for introverts to remain out of sight—and out of mind. So take the initiative in sharing information with higher-ups, team members, and project stakeholders.  Don’t wait to be asked for updates or news about your accomplishments. Find out what information people need to feel confident about you and your performance and provide it to them—ahead of time.

Match the medium to the message
Resist the temptation to hide behind e-mail. It may appear to be the easiest or safest channel, but it’s not always the right one. For every exchange, match the medium to the message—determining if texting, e-mail, phone, or face-to-face is best. Texting and e-mail may be great for quick exchanges, but they miss the mark in critical high-touch areas, including developing relationships and delivering difficult news.

Use social networking to set the stage
Technology is a great tool for introverts. Use social networking Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter to set the stage before connecting with others in person at meetings and events. You can introduce yourself, send “news you can use” items, and warm up cold leads—all in a low-key yet friendly way.

Make yourself heard
Make a conscious effort to speak up in meetings and conference calls. Try to make your first comment no more than five minutes into the session. Even a quick question, remark, or paraphrase will do. You need to be seen as a contributor, but the longer you wait, the harder it becomes.

Stand up to “talkers”
Don’t be afraid to take on the talkers in group or one-on-one settings. There are several ways to get a word in edgewise. One simple, sure-fire strategy: Hold up your hand, give the stop or timeout signal, and calmly announce, “I’d like to say something.”

Value humor
“A smile is the shortest distance between two people,” mused entertainer Victor Borge. As a reserved, inner-focused contributor, you can overcome perceptions of being standoffish or too serious by smiling, laughing, and having fun now and then. You need not “yuk it up”—just be good-humored.

Finally, practice, practice, practice. Learning new skills and behaviors may be uncomfortable at first, but with conscious repetition and refinement, you can manage your introversion—and thrive in the extroverted business world.
 
© 2009 AboutYOU, Inc. All rights reserved.

Introverts face unique challenges in the workplace. Learn how to get your message across as an introvert with this AMA webinar.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, Ph.D. Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, Ph.D., is founder and president of AboutYOU, Inc., an Atlanta-based leadership consultancy.  She is a workplace and careers expert and the author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength (Berrett-Koehler, 2009). For more information, visit aboutyouinc.com or theintrovertedleaderblog.com