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Several years ago I went to one of those well-known health retreats in Queensland where one goes to detox and rejuvenate. I needed to get away from the daily grind, refresh and renew my energy levels. I spent the first couple of days rising at dawn, participating in a meditative practice, swimming a few laps in the pool, reading and relaxing and appreciating the bountiful smells, sights and sounds of the Queensland hinterland, I looked forward to the healthy food and indulged in a few spa treatments, then went dropped into bed early evening for a deep, untroubled sleep. This quieter, low-key environment was just what I needed after a year of long and stressful working days. Within a couple of days I began to feel energised again, and my sense of vitality and passion for life was returning.
Then came the bolt out of the blue. A well-meaning staff member joined me by the pool and asked me if I was OK. She was an outgoing, expressive, highly energetic individual who was concerned about me. It seemed I wasn’t gregarious enough. She misconstrued my quiet contemplation and my ability to enjoy my own company as some kind of unwanted withdrawal from people and the world, or perhaps a sign of depression. I felt I was being given the message that I was behaving in a rather anti-social fashion and that my quiet and introverted behaviour was seen as a sign of weakness.
I had completely forgotten this incident until this week, when I listened to a TED Talk by Susan Cain, author of the book, The Power of Introverts. She recalled having similar expectations placed on her at school camp and was similarly confused about the implied messages about her more reserved nature.
According to Susan’s research, between one third and half the population are introverts. This figure may come as a surprise to you – it did to me. That’s because society, schools and the workplace often socialise introverts to behave more like extroverts. Just sit and watch some of the children’s programs on daytime TV, as I do when looking after my 18-month-old granddaughter and you’ll see what I mean. You’re not having fun, these programs suggest, unless you are excited, yelling and running around madly.
Our workplaces are also designed more for an extraverted personality and often don’t accommodate introverted preferences. With open plan offices and activity-based workplaces, distractions and noises are all around us. Extroverts are outgoing, expressive and are energised by being with others so perhaps they thrive in these environments. Introverts, not so much. It’s not that introverts are necessarily reserved, anti-social or shy. It’s just that they are more reflective and quiet. Introverts feel most alive and capable when they are in a quieter lower key environment, and this is where they operate at their best.
We ignore introverts in workplaces at our loss. The key to maximising talent is to provide an environment that is motivating for everyone. One approach definitely does not suit all. Asking introverts to behave like extroverts (or vice versa) come at a cost to them – it is hard to sustain and mentally exhausting. It also means the whole team is not performing to its maximum potential.
Here are three good reasons why getting the best out of the introverts in your team will create success reap rewards for everyone:
1. Introverts tend to stay with a problem and analyse it for longer. Their contributions are therefore often more thoughtful. They tend to be less driven by the need to dominate discussions. They are good listeners and often ask insightful questions.
2. Introverts deliver better outcomes with proactive employees because they are more likely to let employees run with ideas, compared to extroverts who can get excited with their own ideas and dominate the conversation. Being the best talker doesn’t mean you have the best ideas.
3. Introverted behaviour is especially important when it comes to creativity. Creativity requires solitude and often the best ideas come through quiet contemplation. Scores of studies have shown that when you are in a group of people you tend to be influenced by that group and you start to mimic other people’s opinions rather than generate your own, unique ideas.
Leigh Thomson, in her publication Creative Conspiracy found that individuals working alone will produce more than twice the number of ideas as teams, and that these ideas will be of a higher quality than those identified through team brainstorming. So solitude matters.
Teamwork is essential in the workplace. But leaders need to be smart about the way they utilise their teams. The best leaders don’t demand constant group work. Instead, they assemble diverse teams with different perspectives, give team members time to develop ideas on their own and then encourage the group to bring ideas to maturity.
Don’t misunderstand me. Although I’m more an introvert than an extrovert, I do lie somewhere in the middle and you could say I have the best of both worlds. I love solitude to write and develop ideas, and I also enjoy working through ideas with others, or giving presentations to large or small groups. I also love my highly extroverted friends. They are great fun to be around. I love their company; they make my day exciting with their enthusiasm and passion for life. They balance me. I come away from time with my more extroverted friends invigorated by their friendship and with a real zest for life. I sometimes wish I could be more like them.
However, it’s time to let the introverts among us shine. Remember, Gandhi was an introvert and you can’t get a better role model than him.