What comes to mind when you think of the characteristics of great leaders? Probably qualities like strong, outgoing, enthusiastic, decisive, and… introverted? That’s right – it has been found that four in ten executives consider themselves to be introverts.
Surprised? That’s probably because introverts are often stereotyped as being shy, reserved, even anti-social – not exactly “leadership material.” But introversion and extroversion are actually defined by how we process information and respond to stimuli – not by how shy or outgoing we are. Also, no one is purely an introvert or extrovert – we all fall along the scale, somewhere in the middle. So when we refer to people as introverted, it implies they have more qualities associated with introversion – but they may also have some extroverted characteristics.
Essentially, stimulating environments – like large social gatherings, lights, loud music (concert, anyone?) – are energizing for extroverts, while introverts feel energized after “down time.” This isn’t to say introverts are anti-social – they just need time alone after stimulating situations to process and recharge. Introverts need very little external stimuli to feel excited and motivated, and work well one-on-one with colleagues, whereas extroverts need more stimuli to feel the same way.
Introverted leaders – like Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and Abraham Lincoln – tend to be strong planners, are more motivated by long-term goals than immediate rewards, and thrive when working independently. In short, you want introverts in leadership roles at your company (and you’ve probably already got some). But workplaces often favor extroverts – think group work, open-layout offices, and public recognition for great work. Human Resources and Professional Development teams can benefit from a better understanding of the values of introverted leaders, and how to support them in the workplace.
Strengths of Introverts
Many introverts – especially those in leadership roles – don’t fit the stereotypes of being timid and quiet. Many unexpectedly excel at activities like public speaking – though post-speech networking may be draining for them. Introverts can be very decisive, outgoing, and have other qualities typically associated with extroversion. But there are particular qualities of introverts that make them great leaders. By nature, introverts are “observers” – they take in lots of information now, and process it later, when they’re on their own. So, they’re exceptionally good at:
- Introverts are great listeners. They ask for and consider the opinions of others, rather than asserting their own views on their team. They are also more likely to let their team members suggest and run with their own ideas; introverts are great at managing employees that can take initiative.
- Valuing differences in opinion. Introverts are often more open to different opinions than extroverts. Introverts want all information available to them before making a decision – and that includes opinions they don’t necessarily agree with.
- Thinking before they talk. Introverts “think first, talk later.” They gather as much information as possible and seek time on their own to thoughtfully process and make decisions. They analyze before acting.
Introverts are also more sensitive to external stimuli. This has its benefits and drawbacks; while introverts can become drained and over-stimulated by “too much,” they are also more alert to their surroundings, which means they:
- Notice subtle details. New research suggests that introverts may notice details that extroverts miss. They’ll include important minutiae in their planning and decisions.
- Excel at abstract thinking. Introverts don’t need to see, hear, or feel something to understand it. They often grasp conceptual, abstract ideas without difficulty.
- Work well independently. Because they process information when they’re alone, and can be overwhelmed by groups, introverts work well independently. They can also motivate themselves and concentrate easily.
- Act calm, cool, and collected. Introverts don’t jump to conclusions or make rash decisions. They tend to be calm in the face of stress – an invaluable quality when co-workers look to them for assurance and guidance.
Supporting Introverts in Leadership Roles
Introverts often rise to the challenge of performing in environments that expect extroversion – they’ll succinctly answer questions and make decisions when put on the spot, they’ll brainstorm in group meetings, they’ll participate in group training activities. But like all of us, introverts are at their best when their strengths are understood and supported. Human Resources teams can help support these employees in reaching their full potential – whether they are providing professional development opportunities, or educating colleagues on working effectively with their introverted counterparts:
Give them space to produce their best ideas.
Introverts can communicate when put on the spot – but they prefer space to reflect and consider all information first. To get the best feedback and strongest, most creative ideas out of introverts, they need space to think on their own.
- Allow them to prepare prior to meetings. Introverts thrive when they can prepare for meetings beforehand. When introverts have an agenda, or at least know the purpose of a meeting, they can prepare their best questions and ideas ahead of time.
- Follow up after meetings. Follow up with them after meetings to hear their ideas and opinions – but not immediately after. Give them time to consider their thoughts and responses. Make an appointment to meet one-on-one later, or ask for their thoughts via email.
- Keep lines of communication open. Create regular opportunities for introverted employees to share their ideas and ask questions, outside of group settings. This could be in scheduled one-on-one meetings or with written responses – either way allows the employee to put extra thought into their responses.
Respect their need for solitude.
Since introverts seek out time to themselves to process information and make decisions, employers will benefit from respecting their need for solitude.
- Allow them to work independently. Introverts will excel when responsible for tasks they can complete individually. If some group work is necessary, respect the fact that they’ll need time to reflect after the meeting, on their own, before taking actions or making decisions.
- If they don’t have a private workspace, allow them to work remotely. Especially in open-plan offices, introverts can feel drained by noise and interruptions by co-workers. Having some flexibility to allow working from home, or another place where they aren’t going to be interrupted – like a private conference room – can help introverts be more efficient and even more creative.
Provide effective training and professional development.
Introverts work best on their own and in one-on-one meetings, and professional development is no exception.
- Provide them with resources before discussion. Introverts prefer to gather information before having a discussion or coming up with questions on a topic. If professional training includes activities, group work, or discussions, introverts will participate more effectively when they’ve had time before the training to consider the topic.
- Introverted leaders can particularly benefit from working with mentors. Introverts prefer to work one-on-one, rather than in large groups. They enjoy developing individual, trusting relationships. And since introverts like to revisit a topic after processing all of the information, meeting regularly with the same person can be immensely beneficial – they can prepare ideas and follow up with questions for each meeting.
Companies will benefit from having both extroverts and introverts in leadership positions – both have unique strengths to offer. Many introverts have adapted to functioning at work as extroverts – referred to as “pseudo extroversion” – but their employers will gain when their natural tendencies are supported.