We often associate leadership with qualities we consider extroverted -- public speaking, the ability to connect with everyone and anyone, the power to influence, being bold and action-oriented. In fact, it is arguable that we live in a world that values extroversion over introversion. Extroverts are often thought of as friendly, approachable, and the kind of people who go out there and make things happen.
However, thanks to landmark books such as Susan Cain’s Quiet and Jennifer Kahnweiler’s book, The Introverted Leader, the perception of introversion as an undesirable personality trait has shifted. Studies have shown that about 50 percent of the US population are introverts, and the increasingly positive view of introversion has allowed introverts to feel more confident about being leaders in the workplace.
As an introvert myself, I had concerns about my ability to lead when I was first promoted to a managerial position. But I learned that being an introvert does not hinder leadership; in fact, you can use your introversion in ways that make you a more effective leader.
But before we go on, it’s important to clarify a common misconception: being an introvert does not equate to being timid or shy. While some introverts do have trouble with social interactions, introversion, in psychological terms, refers to how one draws energy. Extroverts gain energy by being social and around other people and are stimulated by the outer world. On the other hand, introverts are energized by time spent alone and connecting with their rich inner worlds.
With that definition in mind, here are five ways introverts can be more effective leaders:
1. Connect authentically with people
Introverts are commonly thought of as being solitary, and while we definitely need and value our alone time, we also enjoy being social. The key difference between extroverts and introverts is the type of socializing that each prefers. Extroverts do well with large groups of people and are quick to share their ideas and thoughts with whoever they’re speaking with. Introverts prefer connecting with people in small groups or one-on-one, and they are interested in authentically connecting with people through in-depth conversations.
As an introvert, you can leverage this preference for meaningful connections in order to strengthen your team. Get to know your staff as individuals, and find out what drives and motivates them. Value their strengths and how they contribute to the team in unique ways.
One way to connect authentically with your team is to be yourself. In the office, we’re often tempted to put on a persona so that our colleagues and peers view us in the best way possible. However, building deep connections starts with being true to yourself, and honestly articulating your thoughts and feelings. Your team will appreciate seeing your human side, instead of just your ‘boss’ persona. Developing an authentic and honest relationship with your team also allows you to become a leader who coaches in order to get the best out of everyone.
2. Take time and space to think and reflect
Introverts love their complex and rich inner worlds and need to regularly retreat into solitude in order to process information, gather insights and reflect on possibilities and ideas. This preference for reflection can have a profound impact on the quality of your leadership.
The corporate world is powered by two things: ideas and action. An introvert’s preference for reflection before action can result in better decision-making. So don’t feel pressured to make snap decisions! Yes, there will be times when you may need to react quickly to a developing situation but don’t neglect your need to consider different possibilities and ideas before coming to a decision. Your preference for reflection also means that you tend to take calculated risks instead of impulsive ones and this can be an advantage as a leader.
Most introverts are also very introspective and self-aware, and this quality is great for your personal development. Take the time to periodically reflect on your performance as a leader, celebrate your strengths and identify areas for improvement.
3. Set boundaries
Introverts lose energy when overstimulated by too many sensory experiences or being around people 24/7. Think of an introvert personality as a battery that is being continually drained by information, data and people. The only way to recharge is to get some time alone. This is when having healthy boundaries can help introverts perform better as leaders.
As a leader, your time is often not your own. There’s a staff member who may need your advice or a new report that requires your attention or yet another meeting to attend. A leader has so many competing things to take care of it’s easy to get overwhelmed, regardless of where one stands on the extrovert-introvert spectrum. Having to deal with a multitude of tasks as well as people management can be especially tough on an introverted leader.
Therefore, as an introvert, it’s crucial that you set some boundaries in the workplace. This could be as simple as informing your team that you’re not to be disturbed at certain hours as you attend to important tasks. It could check your emails in batches at specific times so you can focus on your own work instead of being constantly interrupted by incoming correspondence. If you have an office, perhaps closing your office door at certain times will give you the space for reflection during the workday.
President Obama is an excellent example of a leader who sets boundaries to nurture his introversion. His solitary hours at the end of the day provide him with the space and time for reflection that he needs in order to be effective during normal working hours.
4. Listen and communicate well
Introverts think before they speak, and often are careful about what and how they communicate with others. Generally speaking, introverts are not a dominant personality type and this lack of assertiveness can actually be an advantage when it comes to building a high-performing team in the workplace.
How so? An introverted leader is more likely to create a collaborative climate by listening to input from their team, taking the time to consider that feedback, and then communicating their own point of view. This is a more measured approach compared to the image we have of an extroverted, charismatic leader who dominates the work environment with his ideas and thoughts and may not be as consultative.
The ability to receive feedback and ideas from your staff is a great quality for a leader to have; having two-way communication helps employees feel more engaged with the team’s goals and performance. Extroverted leaders tend to be more verbal and forceful about their ideas, and this can discourage subordinates from articulating differing perspectives. Introverts have a natural tendency to stop and listen to others, so leverage this by further improving your listening skills to better understand your staff.
5. Empower other introverts
The quiet, reflective manner of introverts often means that we can fade into the background as more vocal team members articulate their views. Introverts need time to process their thoughts before speaking and often this ‘processing time’ means that we miss out on sharing our opinions because the moment has passed.
As an introverted leader, it’s easier for you to identify other introverts on your team. What someone else may dismiss as lack of participation or not want to share opinions could actually just be an introvert taking the time to think before speaking.
To be an effective leader, make the effort to draw out other introverts on your team and give them space to contribute in their own way. Perhaps they are uncomfortable sharing their thoughts with the entire group, so instead you could arrange for a one-on-one meeting to get their feedback. Alternatively, allow team members to e-mail you their views after the meeting instead of immediately closing the discussion.
Four in ten executives categorize themselves as introverts, and with prolific introverts in the forefront of fields such as business (Warren Buffett, Bill Gates) and politics (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton), it’s clear that introversion is not a hindrance to leadership and success.
A core quality of being an effective leader is being authentic, so if you are an introvert in a leadership position, don’t force yourself to exude a persona that isn’t aligned with who you are. Embrace your introversion and use those qualities to connect with your team and lead in a way that leverages on the benefits of being an introvert.
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