Quiet Power in a Loud World | Working Mother

Quiet Power in a Loud World

Reality TV! Social media! Big-and-bold leaders! Sometimes it seems life today is tailor-made for extroverts. But given that as many as half of us are introverts, how can we quieter types succeed amidst so much noise?

introverts illo

introverts illo

Executive recruiter Stacy Pursell walked into the impromptu gathering of a dozen people during a busy professional conference. Her client, an outgoing guy, had decided to swap out the one-on-one Stacy had planned in a favor of a whole-team session. So the 41-year-old mom of five put on a lapel microphone to compensate for her normally quiet speaking voice and offered an energetic pitch for the client to enlist her services. Translation: She faked extroversion for a while. Result: the impressed client signed her on.

Oh, how we love an extrovert. Being outgoing is the American social gold standard. For every resume that lists “independent thinker” (an introverted characteristic) as an asset, a hundred others trumpet being a “team player" (the extrovert’s modus operandi). Problem is, at least a third and as many as half of us are...shhhh...introverts—tending to be more inwardly rather than outwardly directed, preferring to listen rather than talk, wanting to work independently rather than in groups and to recharge through time alone rather than socializing with others.

But in a culture where “speaking up” equals “getting heard,” introverts often operate at a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, disadvantage. kids who are quiet and observant get labeled shy. in the workplace, reticent adults get fewer shots at high-profile projects and are more often passed over for promotion than their outspoken peers.

It’s time for a shift in perspective, says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, who proudly professes being an introvert. “The culture is lopsided,” she quietly asserts. “Introverts have valuable strengths that are undervalued. We need the talents of quiet thinkers, of people who are good at working on their own and coming up with great creative insights.” After all, she notes, “there is zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas."

Stacy Pursell agrees. though she won her client’s business by temporarily posing as an extrovert, she’d be the first to say it’s her introverted strengths—good listening skills, strong analytical thinking, a calm demeanor—that propel her success.

Most People Would Never Know

Given some of the baggage that comes with the introvert label—shy, antisocial, nerdish, bookish—it’s not surprising many working moms we interviewed said others aren’t aware of their “I” status. (For the record, introverted does not equal shy, although statistically, more introverts than extroverts are also shy.) The reality is that introversion “is not about social skills, but about how we get our energy,” says Lisa Petrilli, author of The Introvert’s Guide to Success in Business and Leadership. “Extroverts get it from others. Introverts get it from within.” (A minority of people are considered “ambiverts,” who fall in the middle of the introvert-extrovert spectrum.)

Introverts function best by balancing social interaction with periods of solo activity, explains Petrilli. How much you need of each is unique to you, but it’s important to pay attention to how you’re wired. “People worry about being seen as not a team player if they eat lunch alone in a busy day of being with others,” Petrilli says.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth. If you don’t seek out the time you need to recharge, you won’t bring your best self back to the group’s work.” Cain adds that research shows introverts are not only most productive during periods of independent work, they’re also most likely to have creative breakthroughs.

Banking executive Jill Landis, 46, knows this firsthand. early in her career, she took a job as a relationship manager for a local bank, a typical stepping-stone position. She spent her days out schmoozing potential new customers. It felt stressful and totally unfulfilling. “I think I cried every day when I got home,” says the Philadelphia mom of Troy, 19, and Cara, 16. “I didn’t want to meet a new customer every day. I didn’t want to make chitchat.”

Then, some years ago, she stepped into a role where she worked alone calculating the bank’s loan-loss allowances. With independence and time to think, Jill flourished. She got curious about whether the bank could find a faster, more accurate way to crunch the numbers. By creating a new formula and linking the data, she came up with a process that took four days rather than three weeks.

Helping Introverts Thrive

This isn’t to say managers should cordon off introverts in closed offices. Yet it’s worth paying attention to workplace norms. Do we expect workers to be socially interacting all the time?

Is the path to advancement paved with glad-handing? Or, instead, are managers letting direct reports know when it’s important to be visible and communicating, and when it’s okay to put your head down and work? “Introverts are called to act out of character much more than extroverts in the modern U.S. workplace,” says Cain, a Harvard Law School graduate who left corporate law and consulting for life as an at-home writer. “That’s a loss for many companies. It’s not in the best interest of any employer to not be making the most of the hearts and minds of what could be half of the population.”

Vancouver, BC–based Carol Millman, 31, works a jam-packed schedule as a veterinary technician, dog trainer and mom to extroverted 2-year-old son Will. She feels like she has to be “on” all the time, and it leaves her drained. So whenever the clinic needs a volunteer to do quality control on the office appointment book, Carol raises her hand. It’s the kind of quiet, detail-oriented task that deflates her outgoing colleagues but offers carol the breather she needs. That’s a key insight for managers. It’s not that introverts need to sit idle during downtime. They can be recharging while simultaneously being enormously productive to the office.

Bosses should ask employees about their working preferences, suggests Jennifer Kurkoski, PhD, manager of Google’s People & Innovation Lab in New York City. “We talk about how you get your best work done. Is there a task you want to tackle on your own, or would you prefer to be working with a group? I look at ways I can facilitate that for people.” Jennifer, herself an introvert and mom of a preschooler, likes to book meetings back-to-back to get blocks of free time for diving deeply into a task. She’ll even retreat to a favorite library table on a different floor.

Cindy Erwin, a high school principal in Phoenix, AZ, and the introverted mom of Avery, 11, loves working one- on-one with students and teachers but knows that community relations and committee work come with the territory. So she gets strategic. When an evening event requires a school representative, but not Cindy specifically, she’ll ask an extroverted staff member to attend in her stead—an invigorating task for that staffer but likely enervating for an introvert. During committee work, she’ll get her extroverts jazzed by identifying a goal en masse, then will parcel out some of the independent tasks to the introverts. She’ll ask them, for example, to research a particular issue further and report back at the next meeting. She often asks introverted staff members to lead committees because, she says, they’re reflective and good at gathering input. The role also gives them a mandate to speak up rather than simply observing the process.

Programmed to Inspect

Cindy’s wise to give her introverts leadership opportunities. in Quiet, Cain cites studies showing that while extroverts tend to be better at motivating employees who are expected to stick to rote tasks, introverted managers get better results when leading teams expected to be proactive and show initiative. She explains that introverts are more likely to hear and then follow through on suggestions because they listen and don’t dominate in social settings. in turn, people who are truly heard are often more motivated to follow through.

And because introverts’ brains are “geared to inspect,” Cain suggests, organizations do well to have look- before-you-leap introverts scrutinizing deals where a company faces risk. It’s hard to think of an organization where that wouldn’t be relevant. Stacey Ferguson, 36, a Grand Forks, ND–based U.S. Air Force squadron commander and mom to Joey, 3, and evan, 1, has served under charismatic commanding officers who find it effortless to stand up and address the entire 270-person squadron. Her style is different, but she embraces its advantages. “I think the best interactions happen as I walk around my squadron unannounced, talking to small groups of airmen in their work areas,” she says. “I look for innovative approaches to our problems and setting a rapport with the airmen individually hopefully makes it more comfortable for them to bring ideas to me.”

Because introverts sometimes have a harder time being visible to higher-ups (they’re less likely to tout their accomplishments or to linger at informal social gatherings where connections are forged), Jennifer often sets “scheduling a lunch” as a weekly goal for her introverted team members at Google. She doesn’t call it networking. “That sounds like a party where you’re supposed to walk around and meet people—horrifying to an introvert,” she says. “Instead I’ll say, ‘here are three people who might have insight to help with your project. Go have lunch with each of them.’” what else can an introvert do? Meet with her manager one-on-one to discuss goals, offer him a list of her accomplishments in writing each quarter, and look for ways to be a resource to others. “Introverts are often comfortable becoming information hubs,” Cain says. “That’s one way of making yourself known without having to pound your chest.”

Designed for Flexibility

When allowed flexibility, people often act with an instinctual understanding of what they need. The extrovert stands up from her desk and wanders down to the café, as much for the hit of social stimulation as for the java jolt. When veterinary tech Carol gets a quiet moment to herself, she makes a symbolic escape into another world. She picks up a book.

The ideal office design should allow for both interactions and retreats during the day, says Cain. A walking path or gym can, for example, be a great way for an introvert to get a vital moment alone with her thoughts. Ditto a deep chair positioned next to a lamp rather than in a conversational grouping.

Google offices have plenty of extrovert watering holes: lively cafés, lounges and collaborative, open work areas. They also offer introvert retreats: cozy chairs, small worktables tucked into quiet corners and what the company calls “phone booths”—tiny private offices, used on a drop-in basis. “We believe in disparate workspaces,” says Christopher Coleman, director of global real estate for the internet search firm, which has been at the forefront of innovative office design. “A massive amount of productivity is lost when we forget that some people don’t work well in large, wide-open spaces.”

Not surprisingly, the constant interruptions and social hum of a wide-open floor may drive introverts batty—but some research actually suggests it isn’t great for distraction-prone extroverts either.

Born This Way

The thing is, from birth, we are who we are. Stacy’s son will share his opinion, loudly, all through family dinner. Her older daughter, however, can easily go the whole meal without speaking a word. At her seventh birthday party, she felt so overwhelmed at being the center of a crowd that she cried when her friends sang “Happy Birthday.” No amount of socializing will turn Stacy’s daughter into her son, nor would Stacy trade their strengths. But she acknowledges that youth is a tougher road for her daughter—as she believes it was for her.

As it is for many young introverts. Some worry their inward natures make them less appealing to other kids than their outgoing peers. Teachers and coaches may label them “shy,” a term that can increase social anxiety, suggests Cain, a mom of two. She emphasizes that instead of comparing an introverted child to an extrovert, a parent must appreciate the strengths of introversion. Got a kid that’s content in her own company? Deeeeeep breath. It’s a healthy thing. Introverted kids are often capable of developing great passions, so parents need to keep an eye out and cultivate them, Cain adds. A child’s engagement in an activity can bring happiness, while a well-developed talent can bring confidence.

In other words, resist the urge to load the calendar with multiple after-school activities simply to pull an introverted kid “out of his shell.” Allow plenty of time for favorite interests—reading, coloring, playing legos, drumming, shooting baskets. When you opt for a group activity, choose one with some structure. Introverts aren’t keen on aimless social milling, but they are keyed up by purpose—an introvert who loves horseback riding, debate club, lacrosse team and such will find socializing in that milieu easier.

Finally, when it comes to introverted kids, have faith. Kids can outgrow shyness. And even if grade school seems to favor the bubbly kids, studies show that introverts outperform extroverts in high school and college, says Cain.

As for Stacy’s daughter, she’s raising her hand more often in class and gradually becoming less reticent. But she’ll always be an introvert, a kid who is thoughtful and loyal, a reader and dreamer. Which is why Stacy planned this year’s birthday party, her daughter’s thirteenth, differently. A sleepover. With just two close friends. And her daughter had a blast.

Introverts have a gift for deep focus, imagination, groundbreaking creativity and close relationships. It’s important that these talents are respected by both moms (see “6 Tips for Raising an Introverted Child”) and managers. At the office, make it clear to direct reports when it’s critical to be visible and “on,” and when it’s okay to focus quietly and deeply on a project. Balance group brainstorming with opportunities to share ideas or give feedback in writing, or through a digital forum (studies show introverts feel just as comfortable as extroverts “speaking up” digitally). When a team does well, the reward may be a group dinner—but sometimes it should be a half-day off. Given time and independence, an introvert may be the one to crack your toughest challenge or to come up with a truly innovative approach, says Cain. “When it comes to creativity and leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best.”


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