Should Office Culture Change To Accommodate Introverts?

In a world designed for extroverts, quiet types are misunderstood as unambitious. Should the introverts change, or should their environment?

In a society that praises extroversion, what’s an introvert to do?

Studies show one out of every two or three people are introverts; but in the business world, a quiet personality can easily be mistaken for someone who lacks enthusiasm or ambition while those with boisterous personalities are seen as engaged go-getters. The perception in our society is that if someone isn’t tooting their own horn, they must not have what it takes to succeed. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about Thomas G. Lynch, a sales support executive at business software company SAP, who despite having a good track record, was often passed over for leadership roles because of his quiet personality.

Lynch hired a career coach to help him overcome his quiet image. In the article, Lynch describes how he asked co-workers to provide three adjectives that described him. The results (words such as innovative, thorough, and empathetic) showed Lynch his best qualities were tied to his reflective, introverted style.

Rather than try to change his personality to become an extrovert, Lynch was encouraged to continue to build upon the strengths of being an introvert. The change he was encouraged to make was to promote those strengths to those around him, doing a little self-boasting and speaking up more in meetings. In other words, making small extroverted changes, but ones that didn’t completely go against his introverted style.

While Lynch now feels more positive about his career potential since making these changes, the article raises an important issue. Despite all the literature on the benefits introverts bring to a business, modern workplaces are designed primarily with the needs of extroverts in mind.

In her bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain argues that open-office floor plans that subject us to the constant noise and gaze of co-workers are often uncomfortable environments for introverts who thrive in quiet, low-key environments that allow for reflection and creative thought. Yet, introverts are constantly forced to work against their own nature and to turn on their creative juices in team meeting settings.

As an introvert myself, I used to head to meeting rooms 15 minutes early to have a few moments alone for quiet reflection and brainstorming before the troops entered and the room got loud. I wonder what would have happened if Lynch’s company had examined ways to create a culture that appealed to his natural temperament.

Rather than a one-size-fits-all open workspace, what would happen if an office gave employees the choice between private rooms and open spaces for co-mingling? What if meetings began not with a large group of people spitting ideas onto the table but with a few minutes of solo activity where a problem is presented ahead of time? What if introverts like Lynch (and myself) could take a few moments in solitude to gather their thoughts and can even send out ideas in an email ahead of the meeting time, rather than being forced to react on the spot?

Maybe it's not introverts that need to change the way they fit into an organization, but the organization that needs to change how it treats introverts.

Hat Tip: Wall Street Journal

[Image: Flickr user Incase]

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  • Therese Tappouni

    The introvert should not change--her parents and schools did their best to do that: "Why are you reading? Go out and play with the other kids," etc. Your introvert can be the most creative and productive of your staff--they just don't make a big deal out of it, or blow their horn over it. Cultivate the culture of the introvert and you'll be amazed.

  • Therese Tappouni

    Introverts should not change--their parents and teachers already tried it as in "Why are you reading? Go out and play with the other kids. The early bird gets the worm, etc.' Introverts can be the most precious creative commodity in a business if the CEO is smart enough to take advantage of it. The introvert is not a herd animal, but is often innovative and stunningly productive.

  • The most overt instance of my introversion having a negative impact on my career occurred over 20 years ago when I was working in a typical office situation and my manager put me in for what he thought was a well-deserved promotion. His boss rejected the promotion because I was "too quiet." I spoke up when necessary but not just to hear myself talk, but apparently that's what this person wanted.

  • What's interesting is that for most businesses, in order to get things done you don't need other people all the time. That means that empathy skills are going to be required – at least up to the point when you’re in charge. Then you might just be an a-hole manager who actually doesn't get anything done.

  • What's interesting is that for most businesses, in order to get things done you need other people. That means that coping skills are going to be required – at least up to the point when you’re in charge. Then you might just be miserable all by yourself.

  • 1> You can't change your base personality, it's like changing how tall you are. If you're an introvert, you 're an introvert. 2> It's good to know what works for you. You can request that, or insist on it, and you may or may not get it. You may need to find ways to cope, or you may want to leave for better conditions 3> Introverts do need people time. Extroverts do need quiet time. Make sure you get enough of each.

    Dave Kaiser Business Coach