An introverts guide to work, leadership and making an impact

by Stephen Conmy


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In life, the meaning of introvert is a person who prefers to think about their inner feelings and thoughts rather than just what’s happening externally. Instead of large groups or crowds, introvert’s prefer to spend time alone or with one or two people.

We tend to think introvert’s don’t get ahead. Some research reported in the Harvard Business Review backs up this bias. In a 2006 survey, 65% of senior corporate executives viewed introversion as a barrier to leadership, and other studies have shown that highly extroverted U.S. presidents are seen as more effective. But times, as you may have noticed, they are a-changin’.

As we will see, this shift to collective innovation is changing the face of leadership. Automation is shifting the role of workers so that tasks requiring following orders more and more will be dutifully fulfilled by machines. According to the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report, the future of work will be defined by creative collaboration. Those jobs involving human ingenuity will be given to people working in collaborative teams that need a new kind of leadership. In short, Wallflower, you’ve got the power.

Wallflower Power #1: Listening

When you’re in a networking situation, rather than trying to draw attention to yourself like the quintessential chatty extrovert, focus on displaying your classic quiet listening skills. The Harvard Business Review reports that “introverted leaders tend to listen more carefully and show greater receptivity to suggestions, making them more effective leaders of vocal teams.” By listening, introverts are great at getting all of the ideas on the table. They draw out multiple perspectives and find connections between them.

They also model this receptivity, creating a culture of listening and understanding, which strengthens the overall productivity of a team. Employers will be increasingly less dazzled by alpha personalities. A more receptive personality type that seeks to understand and encourage many people to share will be favoured in the future of work. The changing nature of leadership means that when you’re networking, you no longer have to feel that nagging discomfort suggesting you should be talking and waving your hands more like your extroverted counterpart whose voice can be heard across the room and who seems to get all the laughs. Instead, your simple attentive listening will give you an X factor.

Although you will want to network as a listener, you’ll also want to make visible your capacities for contributing original ideas. The Science of People suggests that you engage at your own pace. By being intentional about how and when you engage, “you can build confidence and have a meaningful impact…Speak up early – but don’t allow yourself to be rushed. Your mind operates how it operates, and if you’re pressed for a quick response from a colleague who is interested in – or critical of – your idea, responding before you’re ready may end up in disaster.”

If you’re not sure what to say in a conversation when you’re networking, ask for more time if needed and remember, you can always follow up afterwards: “Don’t make a habit of saving your ideas until the meeting’s over, but…It may take you a while to digest new information…If you are rushed to give your opinion, calmly state that you need a moment to think, that you’ll get back to them shortly, or that you need to look into the matter.” Taking time to respond shows that you’re doing more than reaction or holding the floor. Really listening and thinking are excellent qualities that spell leadership in the future of work.

Wallflower Power #2: Sensitivity

While highlighting your listening capacity when networking, you can also now relax into your heightened sensitivity. The future of work will welcome the trait of sensitivity. When managing a collaborative group, the sensitivity will alert a leader to various cues that need to be recognized for a creative team to collaborate most effectively.

According to the Science of People, introverts tend to be more sensitive than extroverts and are more likely to notice and respond to the variety of voices in the group. Introverts are, in fact, more generally sensitive—”research shows that introverts have a fundamentally different way of perceiving the world — and this is a huge advantage.” A classic example is the ‘lemon juice experiment.’ Introverts were found to salivate more than extroverts when a drop of lemon juice was placed on their tongue. The theory is that introverts get triggered more readily by what’s going on around them. This keen awareness means they can respond quickly to what’s happening and help steer a team well during improvisatory exchanges.

So, you needn’t hide your sensitivity. But you will want to demonstrate your ability to manage and even maximize this particular wallflower power. The Science of People suggests that introverts take notes and, again, follow up with people: “if following up on a bit of post-meeting research opens up a fresh angle on your take, then, by all means, share it. It may take you a while to digest new information.” By taking notes and following up, you demonstrate that your sensitivity is a collaborative power. It means you’re thinking continues beyond the moment of interaction. If directed, your tendency toward this hyper processing, this receptivity, inwardness and reflection, creates results that quickly benefit a collaborative creative process.

Wallflower Power #3: Humility

Not only can you network effectively as a sensitive, thoughtful listener, but you can also forget about being the boastful self-promoter. Embrace the humility that comes more naturally to introverts. Leaders of collaborative creative groups need to be the sort who are open to the ideas of others. They need to realize many other people might have better ideas than their own. “Studies have found that introverts are more humble than extroverts. Humility is an incredibly important — and hard to learn trait. It makes introverts more perceptive, more open and less bogged down by ego. Humility is also associated with the desire to be of service to others.”

While being a good steward of a collaborative group’s ideas is sought after, humility can veer into reluctant shyness. But humility needn’t be timidity. Make the distinction between timidity, which can prevent effective action, and humility, which can supercharge impactful collaboration through your behaviour. Gather your thoughts ahead of time and be the first to the meeting.

Come prepared with ideas about what you’d like to say or, better yet, so that you may highlight your listening prowess—questions you’d like to ask. Show your leadership and get the conversation going. Then, you can relax in your listening role. Focus on creating idea generation, drawing out ideas from others, and showing how able you can lead talented people into productive conversation with one another.

The meaning of introvert – always let you be you

All of this productive listening isn’t as easy as it looks. Exerting your wallflower powers can be exhausting. To keep your capacity at its best, be sure to reenergize. In her Harvard Business Review article “An Introvert’s Guide to Networking”, Lisa Petrilli recommends prioritizing time to reenergize. She says, “While it can be tempting to go from a networking lunch right back to work, or from a networking cocktail event right to dinner if you’re an introvert and you do that, you won’t be able to bring your best self to your next commitment. Take the time to recharge, whether by walking from the lunch back to work or by finding 30 minutes alone between cocktails and dinner.”

The emergent emphasis on creativity will require a new sort of collaborative leadership, a shift that will spell opportunities for introverts. In “The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses,” the Harvard Business Review says, “In a dynamic, unpredictable environment, introverts are often more effective leaders—particularly when workers are proactive, offering ideas for improving the business.” Remember this the next time you are offered a networking opportunity. As it turns out, counterintuitively perhaps, introverts are good—perhaps in some ways better than extroverts—at working with people.

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