As a textbook introvert, I find myself needing a different leadership playbook than my outspoken co-CEO. She feels energized in large group settings and brainstorming aloud, but I do some of my best thinking alone. I also need time by myself to recharge my mental batteries. Otherwise, I can’t be my optimal self for the team.
Leaders are often portrayed as someone who can command attention and inspire people with their grand vision. But over time, I realized that this stereotype isn’t accurate. Leaders come in many forms– you don’t need to be the loudest person in the room to have influence, and you don’t need to love public speaking to be considered a thought leader. What you need to do is embrace your strengths and preferences—then figure out how to make those work for you.
In her TED Talk “The power of introverts,” author Susan Cain explains the difference between extroverts and introverts. Extroverts tend to be energized by social stimulation, whereas introverts thrive in more low-key environments. The key, she says, is to “put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us.”
Unfortunately, the workplace isn’t always friendly to introverts. However, I learned that in many instances, many of the “flawed” characteristics that are associated with introverts can be used to our advantage. Here are four ways to do that:
1. Instead of thinking that you’re unapproachable, tell yourself that you’re a good listener.
I have what some people call a “resting think face.” I suspect that to those who haven’t worked with me, I might come across as unapproachable. But here’s the thing–there are situations where having this face comes in handy. Say one of your direct reports comes to you with a sensitive issue. If you focus your attention on them without jumping in to give advice, they’re more likely to feel heard and be more open with you. Also, you’ll probably pick up on non-verbal cues, which allows you to gain a better understanding of their challenges and thoughts.
2. When you struggle to get airtime in a meeting, interject with a question, rather than an opinion.
As a co-CEO, I naturally have a “seat at the table” and can comment when I want. But earlier in my career, I found it difficult to be heard over the loudest voices in the room. A simple way to fix this is to ask if you can lead the agenda, which gives you the opportunity to talk first.
When you do find yourself in scenarios where interjecting is the only option, consider how to deliver your message. Some introverts worry about sharing something that they haven’t thoroughly researched or fleshed out. If you fall into this category, take advice from communication expert and Harvard Business Review contributor Jodi Glickman and try “depersonalizing” ideas by turning thoughts into questions. Instead of saying, “I don’t agree because I’ve come across conflicting research,” say, “Should we consider researching the topic further as a takeaway for today’s meeting?”
3. Instead of organizing big outings, consider splitting it into smaller gatherings.
Improv workshops, trampoline parks, and zip lining are all activities that could make an introverted employee (and an introverted boss) cringe. If you hate the thought of being in charge of something like this, see if you can split the outings into a number of smaller, more intimate gatherings. Of course, as an introvert, one-on-one chats are your forte, but if you lead a big group, this might not be possible.
4. Rather than fear being put on the spot, dedicate a small portion of your day for meeting preparation.
Sometimes leaders have to respond to situations in real-time, and not giving an issue a lot of thought can lead to problematic decisions. I know that in some instances, things come up that I could never have anticipated or prepared for. But I also know that there are things I can mull over beforehand. For example, if we’re going to be discussing a new project at the next day’s meeting, I can spend the evening before preparing for possible issues that might come up, as well as analyze any related data. So when someone asks me a question (and they inevitably will), I don’t have to resort to knee-jerk reactions.
In a professional world that seems to cater to extroverts, it can seem hard for introverts to manufacture an environment that lets them do their best work. But there’s usually a way to turn those struggles into triumphs. The key is to embrace your natural tendencies, rather than waste all your efforts trying to change them.
Stella Ma is the cofounder and co-CEO of Little Passports.