Leading Quiet: The Art of Working with Introverts

By Geoff Powter on October 3rd, 2016

The woman across from me in the coaching session — let’s call her ‘Clare’ — frowned and paused with a sigh when I asked her what she wanted from her boss. We’d been here before, and she knew the corral she’d be herding herself into. “Yep,” she finally said with a smile, “I just want him to leave me alone and let me do my work.”

We both smiled. Being left alone was at the top of a wish list that Clare wrote out the first time we met: fewer conversations with her boss; fewer team meetings; fewer presentations; more time to think things through before talking; fewer suggestions to ‘get everyone together after work’.

And Clare knew that all those wishes were exactly the things that her boss — let’s call him Bob — was hoping coaching would ‘fix’. Bob had huge respect for Clare’s technical skills and thought she was one of the most talented people on his team, but was baffled by her choice to spend days behind closed doors at the office. He truly felt that the team, and Clare, would both work better if everyone worked together more often. His idea of ‘leading’ her was to try to pull her out of her office, get her talking to him and to others, and teaching her to collaborate.

Bob was also genuinely worried that Clare’s apparent lack of connection to the team could limit her future at the company, especially as a leader. As Bob put it, “If Clare wants to step up, she’s going to have to step out.” Clare winced at the thought, and indignantly bucked at the idea that the only way to lead was to emulate Bob’s gregariousness.

The two had reached an impasse that’s all too familiar in a lot of workplaces: the people most likely to be moved into leadership roles tend to be the more visible and more vocal team members, and those leaders, like Bob, tend to want to shape their teams and workspaces in their own extroverted image.

But this doesn’t always meet the needs of the many of the people on their teams. While a striking 96% of North American business leaders self-identify as extroverted, introverts like Clare make up more than 50% of the workforce — and many leaders, and leadership strategies and theories don’t embrace the quiet strengths that introverts can bring to a team.

Here are some of the thoughts that Bob, Clare and I worked with that helped cement a happier and more productive place for her on the team, and even allowed her to step into leadership of a small group:

Understand that active, extraverted leadership isn’t what everyone needs

One of the more interesting pieces of research to come out about the introversion/extraversion polarity is that vocal, extraverted leadership only serves teams and followers that are passive and looking for direction. When leaders step in and offer too much supervision and obligation for group work — even when meant as encouragement — teams and team members that see themselves as self-directed often view those extroverted steps as interfering and untrusting. Tone down extroverted enthusiasm and involvement with your introverts and wait for them to ask for direction.

Accommodate introversion in the design of your office

Introversion doesn’t mean that people like Clare don’t want to work with others — she just keeps her batteries charged better if she has solitary time in any mix. A loud and long white boarding session might bring the quickest and clearest thinking out of an extrovert, but most introverts will need regular breaks in group work to process what’s been said and to be at their social best. If your introverts have to leave a group session for a bit, trust their commitment to the process and let them return on their own schedule.

Appreciate the value of silence and make room for the quieter voices

It may come as little surprise that many of the tech firms of Silicon Valley have greater numbers of introverts — including in senior leadership roles — and some of those companies have been designing intriguing introvert-friendly rituals. At Amazon, for example, every meeting begins with an extended silence that allows people to read agendas and minutes, and gives people the chance to prepare written contributions. At the end of the silence, everyone is given structured time to speak without competition for air time — and this is proving to serve both introverts and extroverts.

Give advance notice and allow for different kinds of input

Introverts may feel much more able to contribute to a meeting when they have been given time to think, and when they can offer their thoughts without having to speak in front of the group. Put meetings on the schedule earlier rather than later (or especially ad hoc), and give introverts a forum to submit written thoughts in advance of the meeting.

Leave room for follow-up

Because they have developed habits of quiet reflection, introverts are often expert synthesizers — but they do need solitary time to process. Build a practice of follow-up into your meetings, and let introverts contribute after the fact.

Plan scheduled and time-limited supervision

Because introverts won’t always initiate conversations, their leaders can feel left in the dark. Accommodate both sides of this coin by scheduling regular — but time-limited — updates that don’t include social content that might appeal to extroverts.

Make introversion a clear asset to the team

As a leader, make it clear that you value the contribution of the introverted style. Talk about the value of reflection, of solitary work and smaller group work, and especially of protecting one’s time to ensure full participation.

Bob’s willingness to explore all of these ideas, and Clare’s willingness to understand how she was coming across and to flex, all proved valuable enough that by the end of our time together she was supervising a project team of two colleagues, who seemed to greatly appreciate her quiet patience.