How to be an introvert in an extrovert world

Written by
Clare Grist Taylor

30 Nov 2019

30 Nov 2019 • by Clare Grist Taylor

Since Susan Cain published her groundbreaking book, Quiet, awareness of how introverts see the world differently has grown massively. But most workplaces and practices remain stubbornly designed for the extrovert ‘mainstream’: think open-plan offices, your average meeting, brainstorming or team-building and social events – all loaded with the kind of sensory overload and expectations designed to make the introverts among us long for what Cain calls a ‘restorative niche’. 

With between a third and half of the population identifying as introvert, this remains a diversity challenge that deserves greater attention. While the world catches up, introverts need to find strategies to navigate the world of work and help their extrovert colleagues understand how they like to operate. Here are our top tips. 

Be clear about what introversion is not

One of Cain’s key contributions to the debate has been to separate introversion from shyness. Most introverts enjoy social contact; it’s just that, for them, it comes at a cost. Rather than being energised by interpersonal interaction, introverts are drained by it and require time (alone) to reflect and recharge. This need is often misconceived in the workplace as someone being antisocial, not a team player, unenthusiastic, aloof or passive-aggressive. It’s not that. Introverts just derive their energy from recharging on their own. For extrovert colleagues, this is the key takeaway. 

Make time for yourself

It’s sometimes difficult for introverts to acknowledge their need for alone time, but it needs to be respected and honoured. Build quiet and down time into your schedule. Take a walk, have lunch by yourself, find a niche to read a book. Anticipate activities that might sap your energy and plan ahead for recovery. Rather than feeling guilty, savour and use a few minutes of quiet time before a big meeting or presentation. You’ll then feel re-energised and ready for the fray. 

Find space for yourself

Any environment that involves excessive noise and distraction can be stressful, making open-plan offices especially difficult. Find spaces – such as conference or meeting rooms – where you can enjoy peace and quiet during the day, or if you want to focus on a particular task. Explore options around flexi-time and flexible working. There are clear lessons here for workplace design; layouts that facilitate team work are important, but they need to be balanced with spaces that allow people some solitude to focus on the task in hand. For introverts, this focus often unleashes their creativity. 

Set boundaries with your colleagues, but reach out too

Everyone is entitled to set boundaries around interruptions, small talk and office banter. Be clear about times when you’d prefer to be left alone, but accept, too, that forming connections is part of the deal. Cain suggests the deliberate practice of scheduling some time each day to walk around the office and chat with colleagues. 

Prepare and rehearse for meetings and presentations

You may not enjoy being pressed to respond on the spot in meetings, sometimes difficult in cultures where that’s the norm. Prepare as much as possible, anticipating and planning how you might contribute. Follow your natural tendency to think before speaking, but don’t hold back when you have something to say. Amid the clamour, a single insightful comment or well-judged question can make an impact. For managers, simple practices such as sending out agendas in advance and inclusive chairing will make sure you hear from everyone in the room. Rehearsing and practising presentations will help build confidence and improve performance. 

Manage networking commitments

Cain advocates using a ‘free trait agreement’ with yourself to manage social and networking commitments that come with work. This means making a pact with yourself that you’ll attend – and make full use of – a certain number of opportunities, giving you ‘permission’ to stay at home at other times. When you do venture out, be intentional and realistic about what you want to achieve. Don’t compare yourself with a colleague for whom working a room comes naturally; making fewer, but meaningful, contacts can be just as effective. 

Step out of your comfort zone

Introversion is a preference. It doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t override this tendency when the time feels right. Many introverts develop and deploy (and enjoy) more extrovert behaviours when needed. Stepping up can instantly change preconceptions about you. Just be sure to factor in recovery time. 

Don’t be shy about your talents

Put your introvert talents to good use, contributing to the workplace in authentic and meaningful ways. Find and share your passions. Make a virtue of being calm, thoughtful and prepared. Believe in yourself. The ability to focus and analyse means that introverts are often excellent at problem solving and thinking laterally. Research suggests that introverts often make better leaders, more likely to listen to and implement their teams’ ideas. When promoting, organisations need to overcome their bias towards the assertive and charismatic as a leadership default, and to mix things up with people who bring different traits and strengths.