Wallflowers at work

You might be an introvert, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two from outgoing colleagues. Here’s how.

There’s an old joke making the rounds on the Internet, and it goes like this: how can you tell if an accountant is an extrovert? He stares at your shoes when he’s talking to you instead of his own.

This may not come as a huge surprise, but one of the most common qualities accountants say they possess — aside from a keen eye and a mastery of spreadsheets — is an introverted disposition.

Marie Cannon is no exception. While the manager of finance at Banyan Non-Profit Management Services in Hamilton says she’s a social butterfly with friends and family, she confesses to being quite introverted on the job. "I prefer to work on my own — reading documents and analyzing them. When I’m in meetings, I sit back and observe instead of voicing an opinion. I dread presentations and I get hives when I have to do any sort of public speaking. I have a very hard time delegating; I’d rather close my door and work through things without disruption. It probably makes me come across as antisocial in the office."

But there’s more to being introverted than often appearing withdrawn from others. While these innate traits influence our personality, "at their core, they are about where we gain our energy," says Beth Buelow, an author and speaker who specializes in introversion. "Introverts gain energy from solitude and low-stimulation environments, and drain energy during social interaction or high-stimulation environments. On the other hand, extroverts gain energy from social interaction and drain energy when left for too long on their own."

The characteristics Cannon and folks like her possess are common among those in financial, technical and scientific industries in particular. "In these careers, there’s a nice balance of solitary work combined with social interaction. And that social interaction can often be controlled — this means we introverts can plan for energy expenditure by making sure we have downtime," Buelow says. "Introverts will generally gravitate toward occupations that provide quiet, order, stability, less social interaction and a fair degree of predictability," says Rick Hackett, a professor and Canada research chair of organizational behaviour and human performance at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton. "So an introvert will find jobs that require high levels of social interaction, risk and uncertainty less attractive." Buelow adds that introverts are drawn to careers that shine the spotlight on other people rather than themselves, hinting that they may not seem suited to the C-suite.

There is anecdotal evidence suggesting extroverts have the monopoly on leadership roles — think attention-seeking execs such as Donald Trump, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson — but it’s by no means an exclusive club, says Gary Wagenheim, an adjunct management professor at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business in Vancouver. This is good news for more reserved employees who have their sights set on top jobs. "When we think of a charismatic leader, we form the image of an outspoken, larger-than-life personality. Both introverts and extroverts can be charismatic, but we most often associate the extroverted personality with this charisma," says Buelow. "Introverted leaders might not have the same amount of star power, but they can be charismatic and influential in their own way."

Thinking about making a move up the corporate ladder but not sure it suits your quiet nature? Read on for simple tips you can use to draw out your inner extrovert to make you a more well-rounded professional in the office and with clients.

Know your strengths and challenges

They might fall short when it comes to their ability to engage and make conversation, but introverts are often praised for a long list of qualities that make them invaluable additions to the office: they’re thoughtful, reflective, reserved, focused, logical, rational, organized, methodical, reliable, thorough, responsible and well reasoned. They’re excellent listeners who don’t buzz from one conversation to the next, they excel at problem solving and you’d never catch them making snap decisions.

The experts agree that there is a place in the corner office for those who possess these impressive characteristics, but introverts should know that their strengths could also be seen as challenges. "Thoughtfulness and listening can be perceived as indecisiveness or aloofness if colleagues are expecting lots of verbal processing and sharing. Spending too much time in reflection might lead others to think action isn’t being taken," says Buelow. Because introverts don’t spend a lot of time verbalizing their thoughts, they might not clearly communicate their ideas to others. "This can lead employees to think that their manager is not transparent enough. To fix that, introverted leaders might feel they’re overcommunicating, but to those who want to hear from them, the amount of information is just right."

There’s one issue in particular that might be hindering your big promotion — introverts don’t toot their own horn. "Rising introvert leaders can be self-effacing to a fault, which means they won’t take appropriate credit for their work and can be passed over. They often have to work to find a balance between overt bragging and extreme humility," Buelow adds.

Practise extroversion

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Barack Obama, Stephen Harper and Mark Zuckerberg are introverts, but you’d never know it when they step into the limelight to address shareholders (or nations), appear at charity events or get in front of the camera to promote their brands. Their success is proof that it’s possible for introverts to get to the top, but it takes some work getting out of their comfort zone.

Start by learning the skill of "talking to think," Buelow suggests. "Introverts are often told to speak up more. While there’s definite value in honouring their natural preferences for listening and writing, there’s also value in developing the skill of thinking aloud in order to have a stronger presence in meetings and conversations." Joining an improvisation or toastmaster class is a good way to practise.

Next, work on your social skills. "Being introverted at work is a disadvantage because there will always be someone who might have more information than I do, but working on my own I don’t necessarily reach out to those people," Cannon says. Instead of keeping to themselves, introverts are advised to reach out by inviting a colleague out for a one-on-one lunch, or purposely arriving at a client meeting a few minutes early so there’s time to practise small talk.

If you’re at an all-employee meeting, conference or party where there is bound to be a big group, Karl Moore, an associate professor at the Desautels faculty of management at McGill University in Montreal, advises introverts to be mindful of their need to take breaks to get away from stimulation. "Talk to smaller groups of people and have fewer conversations instead of engaging in many," he says. "Most introverts cope by finding a few minutes afterward to pursue alone time to recharge. They should not feel inadequate for this," says Hackett. "I know of one CEO who told me that following a public presentation, he plans time shortly afterward to hide in a quiet room, making himself inaccessible for a short period to allow for recuperation."

Being successful in social situations comes back to understanding and respecting where you get your energy, adds Buelow. "By being intentional and taking care to balance solitude and reflection with social and public demands, an introvert can be a bold, influential leader while remaining true to his or her nature."