Growing up, I always felt a bit different than the majority of kids in school. I was one of the quiet ones – but it was so much more than just being quiet.
I didn’t like to be called on randomly for an answer during discussions – in fact, I struggled with it deeply. I was never comfortable jumping into roundtable discussions that didn’t involve raising a hand, and I didn’t particularly enjoy group projects and always preferred to work alone.
Looking back, it felt like I was being forcefully shoved into a mold that didn’t fit my way of learning and participation. Even as I grew older and entered the workplace, I struggled with impromptu meetings and I despised idea-sharing sessions with no preparation. It’s not that I didn’t want to participate, I absolutely did, but I always ended up having my best ideas that I wanted to share afterward and, usually, too late.
In 2016, a few months into my career at Microsoft, I was able to attend the Grace Hopper Conference in Austin, Texas. Due to my background in design, I felt a bit out of place and overwhelmed by the conference. But on my last day, there was a session being presented by Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts, and I was intrigued, having always identified as an introvert but never looking deeper than what society said that was.
That session was the defining moment for not just my career, but for who I am as a person. It was the moment when someone said, ‘Yes, you are in fact different, but not because of some self-failure. It’s because 1) Introverts and extroverts have differently-wired brains, and 2) The world largely caters to extroverts and rewards the loudest person.’ It gave me the confidence and language to sit down with my manager and tell him how I could more effectively be a part of the team.
Supporting introverts in the workplace
Prepare them for, and create space, in group activities
Introverts generally need time to think and process information before they respond to anything, which can be difficult in a group situation where they’ve not had any context set ahead of time. It can also be difficult if they’re surrounded by extroverts who don’t need that time and start chiming in immediately with ideas.
Whether it’s a meeting, an idea-sharing session, or even a training session, provide an agenda ahead of time and set the context of the discussion you want to have. This is especially helpful if you’re planning to ask for feedback from the group. Providing guidance on the type of feedback you’re looking for ahead of time, as well as access to what you’re looking for feedback on, helps establish goals for the meeting and can help give introverts a chance to gather thoughts ahead of time and contribute during the actual meeting.
During the activity, be sure to create opportunities for the quieter team members to have a chance at sharing their ideas, as extroverts tend to dominate the conversation and have an easier time jumping in without much thought. Pause to ensure others are heard before delving too deeply into the ideas already on the table.
Rather than asking if anyone else has anything to add, create space by asking team members by name if they have anything else to share. This gives each and every individual a chance to contribute to the conversation.
Create opportunities for follow-up
Even with some time to prepare, some people don’t come up with their best ideas until they’re in a different environment. If someone responds in the initial meeting by saying, ‘I don’t have any ideas now, but let me think on it’ – normalize that and make it okay.
Allow additional participation by letting people respond via email or in a group chat after the initial meeting, and follow up with team members to see if they’d like to have a 1:1 to share additional thoughts.
And though it’s not always necessary, in some instances, it can be useful to have a follow-up with the group to ensure a discussion around the ideas that were provided in the meeting. This allows all ideas the opportunity to be considered with the same energy and time as the initial meeting.
Let them communicate in the way that they prefer
Give introverts the flexibility to choose how they would like to communicate in a situation. Again, introverts tend to need some time to collect their thoughts and process everything after a meeting. Allow them to follow up in writing or in person and understand that this may vary depending on the topic of discussion.
Being flexible and allowing them to choose how they respond can help take the pressure off providing a response they might feel isn’t the best they could provide. For me personally, being allowed to respond in the manner that best suits my needs makes me feel as if I’m being given the opportunity and time to put my best thoughts forward and contribute to the team in a way that’s impactful.
Allow time to recharge
Introverts require time alone to recharge after social situations while extroverts tend to thrive and become more energized. I recall idea-sharing sessions that lasted a few hours or full days of training that left me mentally and physically exhausted. Work environments can be quite fast-paced, and calendars can fill up with meetings which can lead to a mental overload.
Encourage team members to block off some time on their calendar to be alone and collect their thoughts and try not to schedule meetings back-to-back. The latter can be really hard to do, especially at larger companies, so encouraging team members to block off individual work time can be helpful to let them focus. Another option is to give your team a half-day of no meetings once a week. This benefits everyone on the team, not just the introverts, by providing a space to work uninterrupted for a few hours.
Better team dynamics by creating space for everyone’s work style
Understanding how different members of your team operate is key to creating an environment where each individual can do their best work. Just because someone isn’t always the first to say something or isn’t constantly sharing in the team chat doesn’t mean they’re being unproductive. Introverts often do their best work when they’re alone and allowed to focus.
Allowing space for this within the team and creating an environment where different types of personalities can contribute in a way that works for them means better productivity and a chance for all team members to feel like they can work in an impactful way. This creates an inclusive space where different minds can thrive and put their best work forward, and it ensures an equal opportunity for those who aren’t always the loudest.
The first step toward building this space is communicating with the members of your team one-on-one, and in a larger group, that different work styles and different personalities are part of what makes a diverse team and can make a team much more effective in the way they work together.