Throughout my life, I've been given different variations of the same observation. In school, my concerned teachers would tell my mum: ‘she's very bright, but she's too quiet and needs to put her hand up more,' and throughout my working life, my managers have consistently said to me: ‘your work is great, but I feel you need to speak up in meetings and contribute to brainstorming sessions more often.' The truth is, I hate brainstorming, I do not like speaking up in meetings unless I have something particularly constructive to say, and I feel that I do all my best work alone. According to my teachers and managers, this is a problem. To me, however, it is simple: I'm an introvert and this is how I like to work and live my life. In fact, it's the only way I know how.
The strong, silent type
Psychologically speaking, introverts are characterised by their preference for lower stimulation environments. So while extroverts are energised in situations where they are interacting with others, such as loud parties and large gatherings, introverts prefer to have a cup of coffee with a close friend or read a book. Nevertheless, despite common misconceptions, this does not mean that all introverts are shy or that they dislike people. Many introverts are known to be very outgoing, but they will also always seek time to be alone and recharge.
"Introverts are typically private, thoughtful, reflective individuals," says Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and director of LightHouse Arabia in Dubai. "These characteristics can sometimes make them seem not as savvy in a world that applauds extroverts - people who are quick to make connections, and can think on their feet. But these qualities are actually very valuable because introverts are typically good listeners and great advisors."
An extroverted world
The problem is, however, modern society tends to value the highly extroverted ideals of gregariousness, taking risks, and being comfortable in the limelight, over the quietness, shyness and thoughtfulness of most archetypal introverts. The stereotypical person who gets ahead in the workplace is confident, charming and energetic, while more quiet types are seen as aloof and disinterested. A new book by Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, explores how modern society undervalues introverts. Through her book, Cain argues that introverts are disadvantaged by the bias that is shown towards them in today's society, meaning that their many talents are being wasted.
Dr Afridi says that while introverts can fit into an extroverted world, it can be cognitively and emotionally depleting for them. "Many introverts judge themselves quite harshly for not ‘fitting in' or not ‘performing' in an extroverted world," she explains. "Today's world is very fast paced and over stimulating and for the introvert who prefers quiet, slow-paced settings, it can be very exhausting because they have to constantly ‘act as if' in order to belong. This can be a very inauthentic and unhappy way of living for the introvert if they are working or socialising in those types of environments."
In her book, Cain explains how our offices are geared towards extroverts; open-plan spaces with no walls and little privacy give way for maximum group interaction. However, for introverts, this is an emotional nightmare. Beth Buelow, founder and CEO of The Introvert Entrepreneur (www.TheIntrovertEntrepreneur.com) - a personal and professional development company that provides services, such as coaching, to introverts - explains how the typical workplace today has an ‘extroverted' energy. "There is an emphasis on teamwork, brainstorming, transparency, quick thinking and even quicker action," she says. "There are open floor plans, desks on wheels and open-door policies. The people who advance are strong promoters of both themselves and their ideas. They speak up at meetings, go to happy-hour gatherings and take charge of the company picnic. Goals - and rewards - are highly public affairs."
Buelow explains that while there is nothing wrong with these office environments, they tend to favour and reward extroverted behaviours. She also adds how the difficult part for introverts is that our tendencies appear distorted or even wrong to our extroverted counterparts. "Introverts are more reserved in meetings or social situations, because we're watching and listening. This can come across as cold or aloof at best, and uninterested or clueless at worst," she says. "Introverts communicate their thoughts more clearly in small groups, one-on-one, or in writing. This puts introverts at a disadvantage in workplaces where problem solving and creative thinking only happens in team meetings and brainstorming sessions," Buelow continues.
So how can introverts try and create an office environment that is more suited to their style of working? Dr Afridi says that one tip is to ensure that you know the topic of a meeting well in advance so that you can think of some ideas beforehand. "You should also ask if you can send some ideas across if they should arise after the meeting," she continues. "It is important for the introvert to ‘educate' their colleagues about how they work rather than trying to be something they are not."
While many introverts resort to adopting extroverted characteristics in order to try and be noticed, Buelow says that this can be detrimental to your health. "The main stress I see with my clients is when they try to be an extrovert. They over extend themselves, say yes to too many social or networking events, or adopt a brand or voice that isn't their own. It's not sustainable. Instead, it often leads to unhappiness and even the occasional meltdown," she says.
Rachel Brown, a 34-year-old copywriter living in Dubai, has experienced living life as a ‘closet' introvert. After being made redundant two years ago, she was forced to take a role in public relations, which required her to attend many events and parties, and to do numerous weekly presentations for clients. "This really forced me out of my comfort zone. I remember having mini-anxiety attacks prior to big presentations, and having to go and sit in the toilets during some of the events in order to recover some of my energy. I was out about four evenings a week, when all I wanted to do was curl up on the sofa with a book. In the end, I was so exhausted that I had to find myself another job," she says.
Instead of living life trying to fit the extroverted ideal, Buelow advises you work with your energy instead of against it. She recommends taking naps when you need them, scheduling alone time so that you can recharge, going for a walk by yourself, and saying ‘no' to the party so that you can curl up with a book and enjoy your favourite tea. "Honour your introvert needs. This will energise you so you will be able to extrovert when you want to, or need to should a work situation call for it. Notice I used the word ‘extrovert' as a verb. By introverting - recharging in solitude - you will have stored enough energy to turn your attention outward towards other people when you want to," says Buelow.
While it is important for introverts to remain ‘true to themselves,' there are a number of valuable lessons they can learn from extroverts.
Buelow says that extroverts provide the world with wonderful qualities that introverts can learn from and make their own. "Because they gain energy from interaction, extroverts often give off an energy that shows they are friendly, approachable and open," says Buelow. "They also thrive in team environments and enjoy giving and receiving direct feedback. Extroverts also tend to appreciate and respond to public recognition, which results in comfort with self-promotion." If an introvert wants to develop these qualities, Buelow advises that it is important they do so from an introvert's perspective. "For instance, appearing friendly and approachable is about more than being gregarious. It can be achieved through open body language, eye contact, smiling and listening." This way, you're fusing the best of both worlds. A
Make your workplace more "introvert-friendly"
According to Beth Buelow, founder and CEO of The Introvert Entrepreneur (www.TheIntrovertEntrepreneur.com), introverts can choose to take responsibility for making their workplace more introvert-friendly. She recommends doing the following:
Ask for time
Few things are so urgent that they need an immediate reply. Resist being pressured into a hurried response by saying, ‘I can give you my first reaction, but I'll give a better response if I have time to think about it. Can I have a few minutes?'
Let others know what you're thinking, even if you don't think it's necessary. Explain your decisions, where you are in a process, how long you think something will take and when they'll hear from you again. Remember, your colleagues, friends and family can't read your mind (and for introverts, that's where all the action is!).
Brainstorm new ways to brainstorm
Group brainstorming sessions can be stressful for introverts. Think of alternative ways to get the same results and increase your participation: ask for topic questions in advance. Brainstorm in solitude before going into the meeting. Ask to be the scribe or facilitator. Incorporate small group (three to four people) brainstorming time into big group processes. Give everyone Post-its and provide time for solo thinking in the group setting.
Get up and go
Draw firm boundaries around break and lunch times. Don't get sucked into a ‘working lunch' or not moving from your chair when it's a break. These might be the only 15, 20 or 30-minute opportunities for solitude you have in a day. Find a firm and polite way to discourage people from highjacking your time. For instance, ‘It would be great to keep the conversation going, and I'm happy to do that after I take a break.'