While an outgoing temperament might smooth the path to professional success, quieter individuals need not stay on the sidelines. Here’s how to leverage your strengths to get ahead.
Not everyone craves the professional spotlight. Some of us would rather stay in the background, doing good work and making strong contributions. Thankfully for introverts, there are many different ways to be heard and recognized to enrich your career—but it’s still on you to find the right way to get noticed.
Defining an Introvert
Peter Vogt, publisher of Introvert Insights, and author of The Introvert Manifesto, Moorhead, Minnesota, says it can be challenging to find a widely accepted definition of “introvert.” “It’s better, and more accurate, to refer to yourself (or whomever) as someone ‘with a tendency toward introversion’ much of the time. The term ‘introvert’ is shorthand for something that’s a mouthful to say in everyday life.”
It’s too easy to think of all introverts are the same, he notes, when they’re not. Rather, people who see themselves as introverts may share certain tendencies most of the time, defined in two ways:
- Energy: An introvert expends psychological, emotional, even physical strength—often lots of it—during social interactions. An introvert gets that energy back—i.e., recharges—by spending time alone, turning inward to regroup in relative peace.
- Stimulation: An introvert is someone who often doesn’t react well to lots of stimulation—for example, loud music/sounds that they can’t control, distracting lighting, nonstop talking or interruptions. These types of situations drain an introvert, whereas for the typical extrovert, these situations are often energizing.
Most people think of introverts as shy and extroverts as outgoing. “The extrovert portion of that isn’t so far off, but it’s important to note that introversion and shyness aren’t the same,” stresses Vogt. “Introversion is merely a preference or tendency toward being quiet, alone or reflective; there is no fear or social anxiety involved. Shyness, on the other hand, is a fear- or social anxiety-based phenomenon. An introvert decides not to go to, say, to a party at work because he or she simply doesn’t want to spend the energy to go. A shy person decides not to go because of fear or is self-conscious or anxious about going. That’s a big difference. Thus, you don’t try to ‘overcome’ your introversion, but you can try to overcome your shyness.
“While introversion isn’t defined differently in the workplace, it is widely misunderstood—especially in the U.S., where extraversion is often considered the ideal.”
Gaining Visibility at Work
Contrary to popular opinion, Vogt is convinced that introverts can be quite good at and comfortable with public speaking and presentations.
“If you’re an introvert, don’t be too quick to write off presenting as a possible strategy for gaining visibility in your workplace,” he advises. “Developing a presentation allows you to put your research and communication strengths to excellent use. And delivering that presentation allows you to share and highlight to others your expertise in a setting that is fairly controlled by you.”
If you’re like many introverts, Vogt suggests that you may excel at writing. Leverage that skill to gain visibility. “You might, for example, write a detailed analysis after an important meeting and share your summary with colleagues via email so that they can see key angles and nuances not discussed in the meeting. Colleagues will realize you were engaged and thinking carefully while you may not have said much in the meeting. Over time, you will become known as someone who brings crucial depth to important matters—perhaps not in real-time, but in your own time.”
Another way to gain visibility is to leverage your propensity and preference for one-on-one interactions and listening skills. This helps to build solid relationships with other people one at a time.
“Many introverts thrive in one-on-one, deep conversations, largely because they are willing and able to listen carefully,” adds Vogt. “Something that can come quite naturally as an introvert—listening quietly, without constantly interrupting—will be highly valued by other people in your workplace. So many people in life simply don’t feel heard, at work or elsewhere. If you become known as someone who not only listens to people but also hears them—really hears them—you will be treasured among your colleagues.”
Retaining a Sense of Integrity and Self
Introverts can absolutely be competitive in the workplace, but it’s important for any individual to do things their own way and be their own selves.
“You can (and should) behave in a more extroverted way at times, especially for a purpose or goal that is worthy in your mind,” stresses Vogt. “But for your sake, and to be your best, most productive self at work, you need to be you. It’s impossible—and foolish—to try to be someone and something you’re not, at work or anywhere else.
“Don’t try to morph into an extrovert. You’re much better off identifying, embracing and playing to your introverted strengths. Anything else can be a road to depression—or worse.”
Vogt recommends the book, Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, by Brian Little, who writes about the impact of acting out of character. “You might act more extroverted than usual out of professionalism,” Vogt explains. “You’re an introvert, for example, but you want so badly to … land some new project at work that you become much more vocal than usual in advocating for the project.
“As an introvert, you should—and indeed likely will—try to be more extroverted in the workplace sometimes if there is a good reason for it,” he adds. “But remember, you are the one who gets to define what ‘good’ is.”
Pam Brodsack, SVP/technology delivery, enterprise technology & services for CUES Supplier member CO-OP Financial Services, Rancho Cucamonga, California, appreciates the struggles of being an introvert. “I vacillate between being an ESTJ (Extroverted, Observant, Thinking and Judging) and an ISTJ (Introverted, Observant, Thinking and Judging) personality-type, a Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator (also called a Logistician). But I am most at home being an introvert.”
Brodsack says it can be frustrating not to be recognized on merit alone, based on strengths that may not be given as much credence by the extrovert or as visible to managers and leaders. Referencing the website 16personalities.com, she notes that an introvert or logistician may be more likely to display certain strengths or personality traits:
- “Logisticians don’t make many assumptions, preferring instead to analyze their surroundings, check their facts and arrive at practical courses of action. Logistician personalities are no-nonsense, and when they’ve made a decision, they will relay the facts necessary to achieve their goal, expecting others to grasp the situation immediately and take action.”
- “This sense of personal integrity is core to Logisticians, and goes beyond their own minds. Logistician personalities adhere to established rules and guidelines regardless of cost.”
Does Brodsack feel the typical workplace holds introverts—particularly women, who are often discouraged from being assertive or aggressive”—back in their success? “I would say that in my field (technology), perhaps it is more challenging, especially for women, to get ahead. However, the key for any introvert in any field is to get recognized and be visible, to let others know about your talents and what you can do. For me, seeking out team projects where I could shine paved the way to greater recognition and success.”
By working on such collaborative projects, you can “insert yourself” into other parts of the business. “You’re exposed to other departments and accomplishments viewed by more people,” she explains. “So, if you’re in a larger organization or credit union, pick a project that improves the company, one that allows you to showcase your strengths and present your ideas.”
To gain workplace acclaim in an authentic way, Brodsack recommends that introverts:
- Find a team project that interests you.
- Challenge yourself to attend conferences and network.
- Find smaller settings to showcase your expertise.
- Go to lunch with clients or colleagues and other collaborators.
- Be a good listener.
- Ask questions. Don’t feel you have to do all the talking.
Embracing Yin and Yang
Like Vogt, Brodsack advises that introverts shouldn’t “pretend” to be extroverted to get ahead in the workplace—or anywhere else. She believes that the best teams are a mix of people and personalities. “Success isn’t crafted for introverts, so your challenge is to find ways to interact and get noticed, to tap into your skills and expertise comfortably.
“But it may help to find an extrovert to partner with on projects—someone whose success and face are well-known, but who is also willing to toot your horn,” she continues. “It creates the ‘yin and yang’ effect, which boosts you and ... the entire organization.”
A trusted mentor or colleague that is your personality opposite can help you flourish; collaborating allows your strengths to be showcased alongside theirs and enhances your professional reputation. “This person should also challenge you and help erase some of your motives of why you may not speak up,” says Brodsack.
“As a female in technology, I admit I’m somewhat of an anomaly. But I’ve always had encouragement from my father and today by my husband. So, as a woman, it’s important to find those you trust, who will support you, regardless if they’re male or female. Find that person who can encourage you to talk more and get yourself heard.
“For example, I’ll be on a call, perhaps on budgeting or a similar topic. We’ll be going around the virtual table, and I’m asked if I agree. … It’s not that I’m unsure or have no contribution; I’m simply waiting for my turn to speak! However, extroverts may read that as having nothing valuable to say.
“As an introvert, I’m not the first to jump in with feedback. I don’t feel as agile to do that; it’s not in my DNA,” Brodsack notes. “However, it doesn’t mean I can’t offer a meaningful perspective. I want to absorb the material and reflect on it before commenting. I’m contemplative and reserved. But over time, I’ve learned what I’m good at and insert my opinion in a timely and respected way.”
To assist in participating more visibly (or audibly), Vogt recommends preparing as much as possible for meetings ahead of time and bringing questions and comments to voice at the appropriate time. The more prepared you are for such situations, the better you’ll do—and the less energy meetings will take from you. “Preparation (which includes preliminary research) is the introvert’s friend,” he adds.
Recharging During the Workday
Because the introvert highly values quiet time, finding a way to recharge during the typical workday is essential for day-to-day success. Vogt stresses the need for establishing good habits (and boundaries) that will come to your aid as an introvert.
- Taking a short walk(s) during the day—perhaps during a break or lunch. Don’t be afraid to do so by yourself if you want or need to. If people ask, just say: “It really helps me to recharge by myself for a few minutes every so often.”
- If you need to work without being interrupted, tell people you need to work without being interrupted. Convey this verbally (“I need some time alone right now to focus on ___.”) or nonverbally (by putting on noise-canceling headphones, for example, or signing up to use a conference room with a door that can be closed.) This isn’t so much an “energizing” strategy as a “not losing energy” strategy.
- Don’t forget the introvert’s last resort: The bathroom. If you need some time alone, go to the restroom and hide out for a few minutes. Seriously. It can help you regroup—and it’s virtually guaranteed you won’t be followed!
Brodsack, like most introverts, cherishes her alone time and uses it to rejuvenate. “We recharge our batteries during this reflective ‘alone-time,’” she says. “Find ways to nourish yourself. This nourishment can’t be undervalued.”
Leveraging the Power of Introverts
Therapist Mark Glubke, MA, LPC, of Mid-America Psychological Services, Portage, Michigan, an admitted introvert, believes the key to workplace success is not only leveraging your strengths but also finding an environment that fits those strengths. “Of course, it’s crucial to understand who you are. But you’ll be more likely to succeed in a place that lets you be you, where you can lift yourself in a way that feels right for you.”
He notes, however, that it can sometimes be a struggle to find that place. “If you’re an introvert, or manage an introvert, try reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet. I think she’s spot-on for introverts looking to succeed in a world that favors the extrovert.”
Consider these insights from Cain, as summarized by the Next Big Idea Club:
- We’ve come to idealize extroversion.
- The real difference between an extrovert and an introvert is in the brain and how it responds to external stimuli.
- The best leaders aren’t always extroverts.
- You’re born with a temperament, but your environment determines how that temperament affects your response to stressful or stimulating situations.
- The rubber-band theory of personality explains why introverts and extroverts can explore each other’s lifestyles but never truly swap identities.
- When it comes to risk-taking and innovation, the introvert is undervalued.
- Introverts can self-monitor to help adapt to extrovert environments but can only do so sustainably by nurturing their introverted ways.
Cain is not a fan of trendy, open workspaces and believes people need room for privacy. “While open offices have their benefits, the most productive workplace is one that accommodates both extroverted and introverted tendencies.”
Glubke agrees with Vogt that introverts are not necessarily shy, but rather, they embrace a less stimulating (quieter) environment and solitude. They may be more cautious about risk-taking by way of needing time to think more about a situation. “Introverts value measured, thoughtful responses rather than off-the-cuff remarks,” he says, and “those who talk the most don’t necessarily have the best ideas.”
It’s not unfair to say that extroverts tend to grab the spotlight—a challenge for even the most confident introverts. To counter this, Glubke suggests envisioning your idyllic work environment: “What appeals to you? What doesn’t appeal? Finding that answer will help you succeed both in your chosen workplace and career.
“For example, a loud or over-stimulating workplace may not be for the introvert—and that’s OK. Unfortunately, not enough people take time to reflect if a work culture is in sync with their temperament and values.” He suggests asking potential employers to describe the work environment and gleaning what you can about the work environment during the interview process.
That said, Glubke recommends that everyone—introvert, extrovert, or the person on the sliding scale in between—should be able to step out of their comfort zone on occasion, in a healthy way, and be adaptive to the circumstance or opportunity presented. “It’s how you handle the ‘stepping out’ that’s important to the outcome.
“Don’t try to conform or be something you’re not,” he adds. “That never works well. Instead, sell yourself from a place of honesty. This applies to our personal lives as well as in the workplace.”
It may sound cliché, but still waters do run deep, and some of the best teachers and leaders of the world have been introverts. “Lincoln is my favorite president, and he is probably one of the most famous introverts of any era,” Glubke explains. “He motivated people by listening deeply, displaying empathy, dialoguing with people with whom he disagreed, finding common ground and focusing on what binds people together rather than what divides them.
“Eleanor Roosevelt is another terrific example. Both were reflective and discreet and took time to think deeply, qualities that encourage leaders to make thoughtful, wise decisions.”
History points to the rise of the extrovert in the 19th century, when character strength in world leaders began to often be replaced by charisma and grandiloquence as the most visible traits. “Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned that the extrovert—the flashier, more outspoken individual—has more to say, that they can lead and read the room better. That is a fallacy,” stresses Glubke.
The key to a successful organization to have intuitive leaders who recognize the talents of others, no matter how quiet they are, and encourage everyone to bring their gifts to the table.
“For example, at a meeting, begin with a strong agenda and allot time for everyone to speak,” he continues. “Listen. Give the introverts the space (not pressure) they need to think and share. Ensure you’re a good moderator. Everybody has a place at the table, and the quiet thinkers often have the most organized, well-thought-out ideas.”
And for the extroverts reading this, remember to let the introverts speak. Or, as Will Rogers reminds us, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”
A lot can be learned in silence. cues icon
Stephanie Schwenn Sebring established and managed the marketing departments for three CUs and served in mentorship roles before launching her business. As owner of Fab Prose & Professional Writing, she assists credit unions, industry suppliers and any company wanting great content and a clear brand voice. Follow her on Twitter @fabprose.