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Introverts: 3 ways to unleash the power of quiet achievers

Call them shy or call them introverted, but don’t forget to call on your quiet colleague

Being shy and being introverted aren’t the same thing—although, in a business setting, they often look similar. The introverted employee genuinely enjoys being on his or her own, and gets drained being social and vocal with co-workers. The shy employee, meanwhile, really wants to get involved—often is a social person at heart—but struggles to muster the confidence to speak out and join the team.

But whether shy or social, your quiet colleague is not an employee to be dismissed or ignored. In recent years, much has been written about the so-called quiet achiever—including the bestselling book by Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which argues that institutions are biased against introverts (estimated to be upward of a third of the North American population) and reward extroverts and their need for stimulation.

So what can an inclusive business leader do to encourage both introverts and extroverts, the shy folks and gregarious types, so that they each contribute and, ultimately, work well together? Here are three key ways:

1. Seek first to understand

Many business leaders who rise through the ranks are extroverts: that’s no surprise, given the bias that Cain talks about—and which any sentient being can observe in the way meetings are run and networking events occur. Such leaders have to work extra hard to understand where their quiet colleague is coming from.

While extroverts tend to move quickly and enjoy risk-taking and multi-tasking, introverts tend to be more deliberate in their actions. The outgoing worker tends to think aloud, while the quiet one takes time to think before speaking. As a manager, your job is to create space for both: don’t reflexively reward the person who’s first across the finish line, as it will discourage the quiet achiever—who might have a better idea or smarter approach—from contributing.

2. Build teams that leverage differences

For all the power of extroverts, they tend to be fuelled a lot by ego: having their voice heard, having their decisions validated. A lot of air is sucked out of the room when only extroverts are speaking and contributing. Research indicates that in a typical six-person meeting, two people do more than 60 per cent of the talking.

When you balance the team with introverts and extroverts, you have the opportunity to really leverage the differences—but you need to create a level playing field first: ask each person in the team how they like to work, when they like to have meetings and the best way to present information. And where possible, put an introvert in charge of the team.

3. Allow the quiet achiever to prepare for their close-up

For all the accommodation that managers can provide, the fact remains that to get ahead, you do need to occasionally speak up.

Introverts feel empowered to do so when they have time to prepare—so make sure to share meeting agendas in advance, for instance. When you have a meeting and ask an important question, give time for the quiet achiever to formulate an answer: ask the question, take a 15-minute break and then launch the discussion after the break.

Finally, if you have a critical social engagement that requires your quiet colleague—a networking event, or a sales presentation—give them lots of information in advance about who will be there, what their interests are and even what the setting looks like. Armed with this info, the shy or introverted employee is better equipped to step out aside their shell and perform.

While business culture can’t change overnight, leaders do have the power to shift the terms of reference. And smart leaders are increasingly aware that the old model—which rewarded the extroverted risk-taker—doesn’t always work: just look at Enron or the economic crisis during 2008 and 2009. As Cain puts it in her book, the business world doesn’t need more “giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.” And the introvert—cautious, methodical, creative—might just fill that bill.