How introverts can survive at a brash workplace

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How introverts can survive at a brash workplace

When people think of leadership, the images that spring to mind are often larger than life. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s Henry V rousing his band of brothers into battle, or Gene Kranz’s “Failure is not an option!” from Apollo 13 , we tend to think of leaders as having big, bold, decisive personalities.

Extroverts, in other words.

But as our world becomes more complex and diverse, I believe that a steadier and less confrontational style of leadership is growing in value. Call it the emergence of the introverted boss – and my own experience in the workplace serves as a case in point.

Not only am I an introvert, but I’m a people pleaser: I feel motivated and rewarded when I make people happy.

Thus, by nature, I hate delivering bad news or disappointing anyone. I’ve developed a wide range of techniques and skills to avoid confrontation. This tendency came into focus for me in a previous role, where I had to make decisions that, inevitably, made people unhappy.

But to be good at it, I needed to accept that confrontation was a part of my job - and this self-awareness helped me recognise how my non-confrontational personality impacted my performance and ultimately my success.

Willingness to be uncomfortable

I don’t think introverts can stay in their comfort zones if they want to advance in their careers. You need to be willing to stretch yourself – even if it is uncomfortable. And perhaps I’m biased, but I believe that it is tougher for introverts to force themselves to fit into an extroverted world, than vice versa. Introverts can be perceived as aloof – arrogant even – when they’re really only quiet. It can be tough to change that perception; but it can be done.

There’s nothing wrong with staying put, of course, if you’re in a good spot, and the benefits can include a great work-life balance. But I knew I wanted more responsibility and that meant challenging myself, even if that put me in tricky situations. Demonstrating willingness – a very desirable skill in employees – helped, too. Yet, as I’ve taken on greater authority, I’ve also discovered that being an introvert helps me solve problems in ways that can work to everyone’s advantage.

I'm not preoccupied with black or white solutions. I’m open to more collaborative options – the greyscale, so to speak. I’m a great listener.

I want to get input from everyone at the table, not just the ones with the loudest voices. I don’t dominate every meeting, nor do I allow the extroverts on the team to do so. I try to understand the context for any issue, which is especially important in complex situations. I’m less likely to make snap decisions.

Of course, there are times that call for black or white solutions, and when confrontation is necessary. Sometimes, decisions have to be made quickly and the boss’s voice needs to be heard loud and clear.

To help my fellow introverts move out of their quiet zones and into bigger jobs, here are some tools that help me:

How introverts can get ahead

Start role-playing your difficult interactions: When you know a difficult conversation is coming up, find a trusted partner – a friend or your spouse – and rehearse what you need to say in a safe environment.

Take on roles that aren’t a natural fit: Earlier in my career, I decided to accept a role working with insurance agents out in the field. This wasn’t a comfortable position for me, and frankly, I wasn’t great at it. But I got better, and learning how to apply my collaborative style in a challenging environment was a priceless experience.

Look for diverse teams: I feel strongly that groups with both introverts and extroverts are the most effective. To get the most value from this diversity, however, you need everyone’s input. Encourage the practice of asking each person to weigh in on the topic at hand.

Learn to speak up: My single biggest piece of advice for introverts would be to practise public speaking. The reality is that if people don’t hear from you, they won’t think of you.

As Susan Cain, author of one of my favourite books, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, said, “The trick for introverts is to honour their styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms.”

Will introverts ever rule the world? Probably not. People tend to gravitate toward passionate, entertaining, big personalities – the great salesperson, say, as opposed to the genius accountant. My experience, however, suggests that the corporate world increasingly values the quiet power that comes with being an introvert. Now it’s up to us to further develop and nurture it.

(The athor is president, Farmers New World Life Insurance Company, Washington, USA)

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