Understand the Inner Life of Workplace Introverts

Understand the Inner Life of Workplace Introverts

I normally stay out of the Monster articles I write. But this time I can't, because this one's personal.

When my editor asked me to write a piece to help people understand introverts in the workplace, I knew I'd have a lot to say, especially when she told me to discuss misperceptions people tend to have about introverts and the often invisible strengths they bring to the work environment.

You see, I'm an introvert -- someone who is energized by having plenty of time to think and ponder and recharge (alone, preferably), and who is drained by too many interpersonal interactions and activities that demand the ability to think on my feet.

Society's Perception of Introverts

But introversion tends not to play well in our mostly social, fast-paced, extroverted American world. Indeed, says Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World and producer of its companion Web site, introverts "are often misunderstood, because our culture overvalues extroverted skills like acting and speaking quickly."

Thus, it's common for workplace introverts to be saddled with negative descriptions like:

  • Antisocial, loner, shy, not a team player. 
  • Inattentive, passive-aggressive, withholds information.  
  • Slow, unproductive, lacking ability.  
  • Unenthusiastic.  

Well, guess what, American workers: There's nothing wrong with us introverts. We're just different from the extroverts of the world. In fact, every negative label that's typically assigned to introverts has a positive opposite that's closer to the truth:

  • We tend to take the phrase "lunch on your own" literally. But we use that time to think of creative solutions to problems, develop plans for new initiatives and nail down the pesky details that could blow a big deal apart if ignored.  
  • Sure, we may not have ideas to share until after a meeting is over, but those ideas will invariably be well-thought-out and thorough. If they weren't, we wouldn't bother sharing them in the first place.  
  • OK, we're sometimes guilty of appearing inattentive and passive. But it's an illusion. "Since you can't see what's going on in the mind of an introvert, many people assume nothing is going on," says Pamela Braun, a Champlin, Minnesota-based career counselor and -- let the record show -- my business partner and copresenter in our seminars on the career issues of introverts. "Wrong! The introvert, processing internally, often has as much going on inside as the extrovert is demonstrating on the outside."  

Relating to Your Workplace Introvert

Want to get along better with us workplace introverts, and, more importantly, help us do our best for you and the organization? Start by simply acknowledging our introverted nature and, as the case may be, your extroversion. That alone will improve our working relationship substantially. Then you'll see how we thrive when you let us:

  • Think Before We Talk: "Colleagues and bosses need to realize that introverts often don't know what they think immediately, and that they need time to think things through before coming to a conclusion," says Joe McHugh, vice president of executive services for the Edina, Minnesota, office of Right Management Consultants. So, McHugh stresses, it's critical to "circle back to introverts after they've had some time to consider things."  
  • Recharge (Alone): "Don't assume that an introvert lunching alone is lonely," says New York City-based business communications consultant Nancy Ancowitz, who coaches introverts on self-promotion strategies. What seems like loneliness might be an introvert's private recharging time.  
  • Play to Our Strong Suits: Introverts are often great researchers, writers and strategizers, and they're also "inclined to be good listeners," Ancowitz says. So when you need someone patient, persistent, focused and methodical to oversee a project, chances are you'll find a great candidate in your workplace introvert.  

Just remember: Introverts "are like icebergs," McHugh says. "What you see on the surface is only a small percentage of their entire selves. It's just that introverts, left to their own devices, might not help people see the rest of them." So you're going to have to constantly look for the substance underneath.