How to Become an Exemplary Leader of Introverts
I was preparing for a program on introverted leadership by interviewing research scientists at a Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company when a new word caught my ear.
“Did you say ‘loudership’?” I asked a seasoned manager. Yes, he had. He went on to tell me that loudership was a companywide code word for what it meant to be a strong leader. You have to speak loudly, act brashly and be seen as someone who can audibly overpower the next person, he said.
I took a deep breath as I realized the challenge I had before me. How was I going to communicate the value of being a quietly powerful leader, someone who doesn’t use volume to get their point across, when the company culture openly promoted a diametrically opposed brand of leadership?
The answer is that there were leaders on this project — as there are on many I encounter — who understand and value introversion. They also know the importance of taking the temperatures of the people they lead and modifying approaches accordingly.
The following are key approaches leaders can take to get the best out of the introverts they lead.
Face unconscious bias
Yes, there is a bias against introverts. Without even realizing it, many managers buy into the stereotypes about introverts as slow, indecisive, antisocial and unhappy, and can ignore talent and potential in the many introverts in their midst. Managers may be unknowingly keeping them from career opportunities and the chance to make major contributions. Leaders need to learn more about introversion, become aware of their biases against introverts, and take tangible actions. As diversity expert, Howard J. Ross says, “By understanding unconscious bias, we can learn to work with it and reduce its ability to dominate our decision-making.”
Open up the conversation about introversion
Too often, leaders focus on only the work at hand. They focus on the tasks, project milestones, deadlines, roles, and responsibilities more so than the people and personalities that are key to getting the work done. Opening up the conversation around the benefits of introversion is one important way that leaders, whether introverted, extroverted or ambiverted, can empower the introverts on their team to feel comfortable in their own skin and embrace their quiet strengths. They can be intentional about opening up the discussion and model self-disclosure.
Leaders can put these questions to their staff: Are we writing people off before we give them the time and space they need to contribute? Are we allowing them to reflect and write down their thoughts before answering important questions? Are we ensuring every person has the opportunity to contribute to meetings?
When they encourage everyone to share information about their introverted or extroverted preferences, their strengths, and how they’d like to contribute to the team, the team builds trust. This can also be done in relaxed one-on-one conversations.
Talking about who we are and our likes and dislikes deepen our connections and understanding of each other so we can work together more effectively. Sharing stories about who you are is a way to humanize your preferences, create connections, and increase feelings of trust. Caroline McGregor, vice president at Merck, takes her story about being a senior leader to Employee Resource Groups and other departments throughout the company and serve as a role model of a strong yet introverted senior leader. In a hard-driving culture, this takes courage and has a great impact on introverts who hear her speak (“If she can do it, so can I.”).
Slow down and listen
If someone seems reserved or quiet, don’t ask, “What’s wrong?” Most likely, nothing is wrong, and they will feel misunderstood. They are simply in their heads. In a live or virtual meeting, try waiting for three to five people to speak before offering input. Extroverts, especially, need to learn to refrain from interrupting, to pause, and to give others the space to respond thoughtfully. If not given the chance to speak, introverts become disheartened and demotivated, leading to lower performance. One respondent in the 2019 Workplace Survey wrote, “I wish that our executive director would take time to talk to me. With him, it’s all about who yells the loudest.”
Become an introvert ally
Highlight introvert strengths and preferences. Sheryl Bruff is a human resources branch chief at the Space Telescope Research Institute, a division of NASA. One of her ongoing missions is to bring the value of introversion into the light. She explains, “One of the things we try to do is, first of all, get [leaders] to pay attention a little bit. We do some training with them …and help them see how using questions can be a way to open up conversation.” In addition, leaders can become sponsors and demonstrate their tangible support for Employee Resource Groups that address introversion awareness.
Leaders who are introvert allies are key in shifting cultures and recognizing and applauding the contributions of introverted staff members.
Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, PhD, is an author, Certified Speaking Professional, and one of the top global leadership speakers on introverts. She helps organizations harness the power of introverts. Her new book is, Creating Introvert-Friendly Workplaces: How to Unleash Everyone’s Talent and Performance (BK Publishers, June 16, 2020). Learn more at jenniferkahnweiler.com.