Understanding where employees prefer to spend time and how they are energized is important when developing employee engagement and culture strategies.
Introversion and extroversion are terms originally used by Carl Jung to describe the preferred focus of one’s energy on either the outer or the inner world. Jung defined extroverts as those who orient their energy to the outer world, while introverts orient their energy to the inner world. Put simply, extroverts are energized by external activities, like group sports, parties, and meeting new people; while introverts are energized by internal activities like research, a solitary hobby, or a solo nature hike. These personality traits are often viewed as a continuum, because everyone spends some time focusing internally and externally.
However, we identify ourselves as the side of the spectrum where we prefer to spend most of our time. Introversion and extroversion are one set of factors included in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory used for a variety of purposes. These inventories are often used in corporate environments to gain a better understanding of employees’ personalities and prefered work environments. Chances are you’ve taken some type of personality assessment for a job, whether it used Jung’s terms during analysis or not.
In her book “Quiet,” Susan Cain chronicles the shift from a “culture of character” to a “culture of personality” in American history that led to the rise of the “extrovert ideal.” She describes the extrovert ideal as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” Modern workplaces are designed for extroverts because of this shift in the perceived ideal personality.
However, research shows that one-third to one-half of people identify as introverts. If you identify as an extrovert, you may be tempted to dismiss these statistics as inaccurate. But as most self-identifying introverts will tell you, given the extrovert ideal in society, they’ve been forced to become adept at pretending to be extroverts simply to fit in. So the co-worker that appears to be extroverted may not truly be so; their perceived extroversion may be an adaptation they’ve made to survive in the workplace. If your employee engagement strategies are based around the extrovert ideal, it’s possible that up to a half of your employees are simply surviving at work, rather than thriving.
If you want to better engage introverts at work, you may need to make a few adjustments to help them flourish in the daily work environment. Given their nature, introverts may not readily tell you exactly what they need to thrive. However, when asked, most will admit to needing just a bit more quiet, space, and time for reflection than their extroverted peers to produce their best work. The following are five common pitfalls for introverts at work.
1. Open offices
While open offices may have advantages for creativity and collaboration, they aren’t always the ideal environment for introverts. If your current space is primarily open, consider using undesignated offices or conference rooms for employees to use on an as-needed basis if they need a place to avoid interruptions while working. If your space doesn’t allow for these types of offices, offer an opportunity to work remotely one day each week. Flexible work options give introverts opportunity to have a predictable, dedicated time to complete work that requires deep thought and time to recharge from office interactions.
2. Meeting fatigue
Days filled with back-to-back meetings can be effective and productive for managers and leadership. However, they can be exhausting for introverts and leave them frustrated that they can’t bring their best self to each meeting, especially as the day wears on. Allow a little time and space between mandatory meetings when possible so introverts can have time to process their thoughts and ideas before moving on to the next agenda.
3. Collaboration anxiety
While introverts may not express quite the same level of excitement about group collaboration, that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate it. Large groups can be emotionally draining for introverts, but making a few alterations to the structure of these collaborative events will help your office introverts produce their best work. Introverts often prefer time to consider options and process their ideas before presenting them to others. Distributing meeting agendas in advance will allow them the time they desire to research and prepare and so they can bring their best ideas and present them confidently to the group.
For sessions where collective brainstorming is required, consider giving 5-10 minutes of quiet, solo contemplation. Ask all participants to write down their best ideas anonymously on note cards or sticky notes. Ideas can then be collected and presented by a single person to allow everyone’s voice to be heard.
Don’t forget, brainstorming and problem-solving sessions don’t have to be in-person. You can use digital collaboration and messaging tools to solicit ideas from a group over the course of several hours or days, rather than a single hour-long meeting. Giving introverts the time and space to fully process their ideas can reduce their anxiety about collaboration and help them to fully articulate all aspects of their ideas.
4. Team building trauma
The phrase “team building activity” is almost certain to strike fear in the heart of any introvert. Mixing with coworkers in a party-like atmosphere while having to learn new things involves so many unknown variables it’s basically the worst case scenario for any introvert. While a “library day” would be the ideal team building activity for most introverts, it certainly wouldn’t work for the extroverts in the office. So how do you find common ground for team building activities? The key is in the pacing of the events.
To help introverts get the most out of a day full of team building activities, start with small group interactions and work up to larger group activities. Keep lunch and break times unstructured to allow introverts time to find a quiet corner to reflect, reset, and recharge from their time being “on” during larger activities. If possible, allow opportunities to volunteer or simply observe some activities, particularly later in the day. Having an assigned task, like restocking the refreshment table, can give an introvert a break from more complex social interactions while still being part of the group.
5. Public Recognition
Recognition is an important part of employee engagement programs. For introverts, being in the spotlight, even for a positive reason can be uncomfortable. Unexpected accolades during a large meeting could be worse for an introvert than no recognition at all, especially if all eyes suddenly turn on the introvert and they are expected to say something in response. If your goal is to create a positive experience, public affirmation may not always be best for these employees.
If you simply must recognize an introvert publicly, consider using a digital platform instead. A digital pat on the back allows the recipient time to craft a thoughtful, written response to the praise if necessary, avoiding those uncomfortable public speaking moments. One-on-one and micro-recognition, whether from peers or leadership, are often preferred methods of recognition for most introverts. To make recognition most effective, take time to get to know your introverted employees to understand how each prefers to be recognized.
Engaging introverts at work isn’t as difficult as it may sound. Slowing the pace to grant time and space for quiet contemplation and reflection during work will help the introverts on your team feel more comfortable. Find a trusted team member that identifies as an introvert to review your engagement strategies before they are implemented to look for any red flags.
One final piece of advice for engaging introverts at work: if you are having difficulty identifying the introverts on your team, the employee who sent you this article probably is one.