Think introverted; act extroverted

How to be a design leader and still be yourself

Picture this: you’re in one of those project kickoff meetings when everyone’s asked to introduce themselves, but you know, in a low-pressure, “say a fun fact about yourself” kind of way. Serving up a mildly interesting anecdote should be easy enough, but in this big group setting where your highly sociable coworkers introduce themselves with ease, you start feeling a bit anxious. The question, while intended to reveal commonalities, can feel like a measure of worthiness. Are you in the right room?

I’m an introverted UX Designer at Atlassian and like most introverts, I recharge by spending time alone. Extroverts, on the other hand, gain energy by being social. I’m on a team of designers, engineers, product managers, and many more who design, build, and maintain our project collaboration tools. Sometimes, it feels like everyone around me is an extrovert. Yet when I confess to colleagues that I’m an introvert living in a seemingly extroverts world, many respond with knowing nods and “I feel the same way!”

Many of the core job responsibilities in UX design are perceived to be more suited for extroverts. To do UX right, you have to get buy-in for your ideas from several stakeholders. With user research, you have to speak for hours to people who you don’t yet know and who will likely be struggling with your work. On paper, it seems like a job no introvert in their right mind would want. So how is it that so many UX designers and leaders identify as introverts?

How can an introvert thrive as an effective design leader?

What being an ‘introvert’ really means

Let’s back up a bit. The terms introvert and extrovert (originally spelled extravert) were popularized by Carl Jung in the early 20th century to explain where we get our energy from. Unfortunately, their meanings got confused between then and now, and we started thinking that everyone belongs to one camp or the other.

There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum. ~Carl Jung

So really, if we looked at how most of us operated, we wouldn’t be on either end of the scale. We would be a mishmash of these personality types depending on the context.

There are a few theories about the differences between introverts and extroverts, and some recent research has even shown that our genetic makeup has a lot to do with which tendencies are strongest in each of us.

A common misconception about personality types is introversion is the same as being shy.

Shyness is fear of social judgment. The measure of introversion vs extraversion is about how one responds to stimulation, including social stimulation.

Extroverts crave large amounts of stimulation whereas introverts feel ‘switched on’ and most capable when they are in quieter, more low-key environments. Again, these things are not absolute, but they are useful as high-level generalizations.

It takes all kinds

An interesting research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School has found that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do because when they are managing proactive employees, they’re much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas. Whereas an extrovert manager can, quite unwittingly, get so excited putting their own stamp on things, that other people’s ideas don’t bubble up to the surface as easily.

Steve Wozniak invented the first Apple computer while sitting alone in his cubicle at Hewlett-Packard. He says that he wouldn’t have become such an expert in the first place had he not been too introverted to leave the house when he was growing up.

Now, of course, this does not mean that we should all stop collaborating — and case in point — Steve Wozniak famously coming together with Steve Jobs to start Apple Computer — but it does mean that solitude matters and that for some people it is the air that they breathe.

Atlassian is seemingly brimming with gregarious extroverts. And while I’m inspired by all these passionate, talented individuals, it can sometimes make this introvert feel like a grade A imposter. But as it turns out, there are a lot more of us in the field of UX Design than I thought.

Tactics used by introverted designers while navigating their career

To understand the challenges that introverts have to face at the workplace, Renato Galindo and I spoke with designers** of varying backgrounds and experience levels. Their stories echoed some tactics that could be useful for introverted designers navigating their careers.

#1: Use visual thinking

Designers have the superpower to visualize people’s ideas. Sometimes these drawings can appear messy but the spoken word is often messier.

What I would do often is design things during meetings and like, by the end of the meeting, there’s a visual to look at. That’s a trick that I pulled many times - it’s not that hard and it gives people something to look at and reflect on. And then at the high level, how do you diagram as a language too, and that’s another super power we have.

#2: Be intentional about sharing your work

It can often feel challenging and frustrating to explain design complexities but it’s a muscle that can be built with practice.

My work is only seen by others to the extent that I show it. No one has time to understand and process all my work in files that exists somewhere. It’s my responsibility to make sure that the results of my work are understood to others. Over the years I have intentionally started changing the balance of the time I spent working and time I spent showing my work - 90%–10% shifted to 50%–50%. I’m not going to lie, it was uncomfortable at first. But then I realized anything that I create which does not result in a particular decision or solution and that I don’t share, is basically useless for others.

#3: Act like an extrovert you admire

This might sound bizarre and feel dishonest but it’s a tried and true tactic to approach the fear of presenting. Think about personas — you’re putting on that character and building more empathy for yourself.

I put on the clothing and the attitude of somebody who I think would go up and have a lot of confidence speaking in front of people. But my mouth gets dry. I start shaking a little bit but then people tell me they didn’t notice it and that I come across fine.

#4: Give your brain the right dopamine rush

Keep small rituals that can help your creative juices flow.

Last thing I do before going on stage is watch this video of my son looking at a snake and that just cracks me up — it gives me the chemical rush I need to relax those nerves.

#5: Normalize sharing communication styles

This one is primarily for those in management and leadership positions. Get your team to take personality tests and reflect on their communication styles.

It’d be cool if workplaces had a manual of “this is stuff you should know about my working style”. So then that way people who it does apply to don’t feel like they’re in the spotlight. That’s the other thing about introverts, right? They don’t want all the attention on them and unless everyone does it, then the attention is on them.

Clearly, the trope that extroverts are natural leaders and introverts are quiet followers just isn’t true. There’s more than one way to lead or contribute to a team — it’s all about finding what works for you.

** Thank you Robert Dietz, Michael Tinglin, Joel Unger, Kseniia, Kasturi, and Erica for sharing your stories.

What are your superpowers and struggles as an introverted designer? Share your thoughts in the comments or find me on Twitter.

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Shaziya Tambawala

Shaziya Tambawala

UX/Product Designer and serial list-maker • Previously @Cisco @GE_Digital @HomeDepot @GeorgiaTech @IndiaCircus • ‘Everything Is Design. Everything!’