My department at work recently went from a small, closed-off room of about six people to being placed in the middle of an open-floor workspace. As an employee, I understand the reasoning behind wanting all the departments of a business to work together. But personally, this change has thoroughly rattled me.
Why? Because as an introvert I work better — and feel inextricably more comfortable — in a quiet, secluded office space. And try as I might to explain it to my coworkers and superiors, no one has ever taken me seriously.
Maybe that’s due to the fact I don’t normally speak out or because I’m not in a management or leadership position; but, as author Marti Olsen Laney says so eloquently, it’s probably because “introverts are often misunderstood, because our culture overvalues extroverted skills like acting and speaking quickly.”
So, I decided to write this post to discuss what an introvert is, the misconceptions of introversion, and why being an introvert doesn’t mean I can’t do my job as well as — or even better than — anyone else.
What is an introvert? For those of you who may not know, an introvert is someone who tends to avoid groups of people because they feel more energized by having time alone, and are usually drained by having too many interpersonal interactions.
That definition, however, tends to get boiled down by society into just “being shy.” In the workplace, many misconceptions include:
- Antisocial, shy
- Not a team player
- Inattentive, passive-aggressive, withholds information
- Slow, can’t think on their feet
As an introvert myself, I know these misconceptions are not true. That being said, I can see where that fallacy comes from. So, let’s clear it up so there is no room left for misinterpretation.
1. Antisocial, shy
Throughout the workday — unless you’re lucky enough to work from home in your own, self-made environment — you’re constantly surrounded by other people. Combine that with phone calls and meetings, that is a lot of social interactions within one day.
That’s why many introverts will take their lunches or breaks by themselves and why we aren’t always up for happy hour at the end of the day. It’s not that we don’t want to make friends or see coworkers outside of work. We just need time by ourselves to relax and recharge before we have to handle any more social gatherings.
2. Not a team player
In line with the antisocial and shy point, unless it’s mandatory to work with a group of people, we may often choose to work independently. This isn’t because we don’t value other opinions or don’t want to be a part of a team, but solely because it’s just the way our minds work. If you want introverts to do our best work, then allow them the time and space they need to do it.
For example, if I’m on a team project, I still prefer to go off by myself to a quiet space to brainstorm and work through my personal creative process. Then, once I feel recharged and more prepared to contribute to the team discussion, it’s much easier to handle the atmosphere of a team meeting.
3. Inattentive, passive-aggressive
Just because we’re quiet during meetings doesn’t mean we don’t have ideas or opinions to share. Speaking up is nerve-wracking — which is why we might come off a little timid and/or passive-aggressive at times.
I’m not sure why people think that because you’re quiet, you’re not happy. Maybe it’s because of the whole “resting bitch face” phenomenon or because we don’t cheer aloud when something elates us. Either way, we don’t mean to come off as unenthusiastic.
If people can “suffer in silence,” why can’t there be enthusiasm in silence, too? (Also, if you’re unsure of how someone feels, just ask to discuss it to clear up any confusion.)
5. Slow, can’t think on their feet
This is one of the most offensive misconceptions, in my opinion. Yes, we may stammer out an unintelligible answer when taken off guard. No, that doesn’t mean we’re slow or don’t know what to say. The trouble is that nerves often get the better of people — especially introverts.
In fact, I get so nervous when someone spontaneously asks me to speak that I can’t even answer basic questions. A prime example is when I was asked what my age was by a stranger and I was so taken aback that he spoke to me that I told him the wrong age (when I obviously do know how old I am).
Please just give us a few moments to get out of our heads and compose ourselves.
Why being an introvert doesn’t mean I can’t excel in the workplace
Unfortunately, these misconstrued characteristics are what many (okay, all) businesses do not want in their employees. The “tell me about yourself” section of applications and interviews always bewilders me no matter how many answers I memorize.
But there is absolutely no reason why people should assume that introverts cannot excel in the workplace. In my experience, introverts often are extremely hard-working. We just place value in actions rather than outspoken words.
While we may not be one to volunteer to give a speech, that doesn’t mean we’re not qualified or able to give one. According to an Academy of Management study, “many introverts enjoy and excel in roles that involve leading others, speaking publicly, and being in the spotlight. Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and countless other leaders through history have been classified as introverts.”
When it comes to leadership positions, many assume that introverts are too timid or unqualified to take charge. However, Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking,” actually proves the opposite:
“Studies have suggested that introverted leaders actually deliver better outcomes than extroverts do when managing proactive employees. According to Harvard Business School research, introverted leaders are more likely to listen to and implement the ideas of their teams.
“Introverts are really good, if they have a bunch of engaged employees, at letting those employees run with their ideas, cultivating those ideas. They’re less focused on putting their own stamp on things and more on bringing out other people’s strengths,” Cain says.
Introverts react to stimulation much differently than extroverts. In fact, it’s usually polar opposites. While extroverts can perform admirably in an open floor concept with plenty of background noise or music, introverts need a quiet, more secluded space to keep their stress levels low and creativity levels high. When an introverted employee asks for flex scheduling or to work from home or a smaller, more private office — we are not asking because we want to be coddled. We are asking to work from an environment that plays to our strengths that will benefit both our productivity and, in turn, benefit the business as a whole.
Introverts may come off as shy, antisocial, and even unenthusiastic to some, but take the time to look past the stigma and see things from our point of view. Although we may not be keen on self-promotion, that doesn’t mean we don’t know our worth or don’t deserve the chance to prove ourselves.
As Joe McHugh, vice president of executive services at Right Management Consultants says, “introverts are like icebergs. What you see on the surface is only a small percentage of their entire selves.”