One of my clients is a design lead at a hyper-growth startup — we’ll call him Frank. He is also an introvert. He came to me when his boss asked him to “show up” more in executive meetings, and we realized they may be grooming Frank for a director role. These meetings were an opportunity to demonstrate leadership potential.
But Frank felt he rarely had something insightful to say to the group until it was too late. Either someone already said it, or it occurred to him when the meeting was over. He was skilled at active listening and being truly present with his colleagues, but speaking up wasn’t his forte.
Unfortunately, at his workplace and at many tech companies, “showing up” as a leader is interpreted as talking first and talking frequently. We work in an extroverted world where the loudest person in the room often wins.
But the loudest idea is rarely the best idea. To enable introverts to thrive as leaders, and organizations to thrive from diversity of perspective, we need to reconsider our strategies and environment.
Introversion at Work
Introverts process events and interactions differently, giving weight to extra information like past experiences and future plans. This means it takes them longer to reach a decision or response, but it can also make the response a thoughtful one.
But because of the lengthier processing time, introverts may find it difficult to speak up in meetings, make decisions on the spot, or lead events for large groups. A typical extroverted workday leaves them depleted.
This can artificially curb introverts from reaching their executive potential, yet introverts have distinct leadership advantages. They are skilled at nurturing deep relationships, unearthing insights, and devising uniquely creative solutions. As Susan Cain, author of Quiet, puts it: “Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.”
Today, introverts are underrepresented on executive teams, but they’re just as effective as extroverted leaders, according to research by Wharton’s Adam Grant. In fact, Grant says, introverts may be more skilled than extroverts at driving results with proactive employees (as opposed to passive ones), because they excel at validating initiative and listening to input from their team.
Just because meetings are draining doesn’t mean introverts don’t collaborate.
There’s a common misconception that introversion means shyness, but introverts do enjoy social interaction. They simply need to be alone to recharge their batteries. In a work setting, for example, introverts can re-energize after a long series of meetings with some protected solo time in a quiet space.
And just because meetings are draining doesn’t mean introverts don’t collaborate. Extroverts tend to process thoughts out loud, so meetings are a great forum to hash out ideas. Introverts, on the other hand, tend to process in their head: think first, talk later. They may also prefer to express ideas in writing.
Developing Introverted Leaders
Back to my introverted client, Frank. We experimented with a few techniques to help him communicate during executive meetings and work on his presence overall. He began to write his thoughts in his notebook, which showed his engagement and helped him with processing. If he got uncomfortable when he spoke up, he had his notes to fall back on.
And when he had to make decisions in a meeting, we deployed the “follow-up email” decision-making process: He acknowledged the team for sharing their perspectives, told them he’d take some time to consider what he’d heard, and get back to them in the morning via email.
Meetings are still painful for him today, but he’s getting more recognition from leadership with these strategies.
Developing Introverted Individual Contributors
In addition to using these strategies for self-advancement, introverted managers are in a unique position to develop introverts on their team.
I once led a designer who was one of the most talented and insightful people on our team — we’ll call him Alex. However, he was terrified of speaking up in groups of more than three. Even asking him to observe in large meetings was outside of his comfort zone, which made critiques particularly difficult.
Rethink the way your organization operates to benefit a diverse team.
So, we challenged our own assumption that group sessions were the best way to collect feedback. Just because bigger meetings worked for others, it didn’t mean they would work for Alex. We found ways to engage him in one-on-one creative dialogues and critiques. For example, we started having him check in with individuals before larger crits, and sometimes we’d do a special 2:1 crit to keep it small.
Alex quickly became one of our most sought-after collaborators and mentors. And we got him a coach, which helped him improve over time.
Adopt Strategies for Introverted Leadership
If you’re an introverted leader who wants more visibility in an extroverted world, find new ways of showing up, using your strengths, and creating space for introverts on your team.
Learn Your Triggers
Use a journal to get to know your triggers, energy levels, and the activities that energize or deplete you. Map them in a notebook throughout the day and pay special attention to each meeting. How many people were there? Were you asked to make a decision?
This self-knowledge lets you show up strategically and design your optimal workday. Know when you need to be a “pretend extrovert,” then balance it by scheduling protected solo time.
Accept the Silent Pause
Get comfortable with quiet pauses in conversations and meetings. If someone asks you a question, it’s okay not to have an immediate answer. Your thoughtful consideration will be respected.
Embrace the Follow-Up
Solitude will help you make great choices. You don’t need to make impulse decisions during meetings and conversations — listen to presentations and explain that you’ll get back to them in the morning with your decision in writing. Use that solo time to think and reflect. Following up is a common practice of great leaders, especially in high-risk scenarios.
As an introvert, you have unique abilities to make a lasting impact on your company’s culture, product, and vision.
Take Advantage of One-on-Ones
Most introverts are far more comfortable in smaller groups. Leverage your one-on-ones to collect information, brainstorm ideas, and make confident decisions together.
Make the Most of Social Media
Today, your physical presence is only part of your brand as a leader. Introverts may take to social media more naturally, where it’s far less draining to share your perspectives. This can help you gain visibility in your community that might be difficult to achieve in person.
Support Introverted Makers
Rethink the way your organization operates to benefit a diverse team. Start with the format of meetings and crits. Traditional crits, where someone gives a presentation and everyone speaks up with feedback, are particularly challenging for creative introverts. Slow the format down and have the team write their ideas and feedback on Post-its for a few minutes after a presentation. Then collect and share that feedback in a predictable way, rather than defaulting to whoever speaks up first.