At a glance
Quiet achievers are intelligent, introverted and industrious, but are regularly overshadowed in the workplace by their more socially confident colleagues.
“Workplaces tend to notice and reward behaviour that is characteristic of extroverts,” says Peter O’Connor, an associate professor at QUT Business School.
Sociability, confidence and a knack for networking make extroverts stand out from the crowd, while quiet achievers hum away in the background, getting the job done.
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, claims that society at large is biased against introverts.
“Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation,” she says in a 2012 TED Talk with more than 18 million views.
How to manage introverted employees
Managers may mistakenly interpret a quiet achiever’s reticence as a lack of proficiency in their role.
“It may be not so much that they don’t have an idea, or they don’t have a suggestion, but rather that they want to be able to process and reflect on what they think is a valuable thing to say,” says Anya Johnson, a senior lecturer in work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney Business School.
Organisations rely on quiet achievers’ knowledge and productivity, but their contribution is often taken for granted.
Here are five tips for employers to improve engagement and retention among introverted employees.
1. Make work days flexible
Constant meetings and highly structured schedules with little downtime for reflection can inhibit an introvert’s performance at work.
“Allow people to work the way they want to. Extroverts should feel comfortable taking time to socialise, while introverts should have licence to work remotely or take breaks from the team,” writes Rebecca Knight in the Harvard Business Review article, How to Be Good at Managing Both Introverts and Extroverts.
Cut down on meetings to help create space for uninterrupted work time.
Another option is the introduction of regular meeting-free periods such as “Thinking Thursdays”, the weekly one-day meeting ban implemented by automotive industry website Edmunds Inc in 2016.
2. Change your brainstorming methods
Spontaneous group brainstorming sessions, the default method of generating ideas in the workplace, are better suited to extroverted team members.
Make brainstorming introvert-friendly by sending out a memo before the meeting with information about what will be discussed.
“If you ask people to come along with ideas for a particular issue, you give the introvert more time to process and think through what they want to say,” says Johnson.
Encourage people to break into smaller groups to brainstorm ideas, she suggests, and have each group present back to the team.
“That way, what you’re trying to do is to give the quieter person an opportunity to test out their ideas, and perhaps allow the extrovert in the group to represent the group,” she explains. “You’re maximising the strengths of everyone in the team.”
3. Encourage introverts to be social
Research shows that introverts enjoy social tasks, or teamwork, just as much as extroverts, says O’Connor.
“The problem is, however, that introverts seem to underestimate how much they will enjoy social tasks, which is why they tend to avoid them.”
Managers can support the quiet achievers in their team by occasionally allocating them roles where they have no choice but to act extroverted, says O’Connor.
“This can improve their performance, mood and confidence in the long term.”
Be warned – this is a task best executed with sensitivity. O’Connor advises against putting introverts into “heavily social positions … as this might cause them psychological discomfort in the long term.”
4. Rethink office design
Open-plan offices were originally conceived as places of collaboration. The idea was that the absence of walls would foster an uninhibited flow of ideas. The reality is somewhat different; for every eureka moment at the water cooler there are countless more examples of work being interrupted by noisy colleagues.
While Johnson is reluctant to brand all open-plan offices as unsuited to workers with quiet dispositions, she acknowledges that in some cases privacy increases productivity.
“You need different spaces for different types of work,” she says.
Create quiet zones for work that requires concentration and communal areas for collaborative work – the whole team will benefit.
“For an extrovert, having some private space might be useful,” she observes.
5. Don’t overlook introverts for leadership positions
A popular misconception holds that extroverted personalities are more suited to leadership positions, but it is a mistake to overlook the leadership capabilities of quiet achievers.
After all, some of the world’s most successful leaders have been introverts, from Warren Buffett to Barack Obama, who was once described by a political analyst as “a more or less solitary figure who has extraordinary communicative capacities”.
“Extroverts are often perceived as ‘leader-like’ even when they are actually poor leaders,” says O’Connor.
“This is because extroverted behaviour seems consistent with most people’s stereotype about how a good leader behaves and interacts with others.”
Introverts are often good listeners and deep thinkers, characteristics that can help make them effective leaders, but their success often hinges on how positively or negatively they view leadership.
“Again, managers who occasionally challenge introverts with roles pushing them out of their comfort zone are likely to have success,” says O’Connor, noting that research shows introverts make particularly effective leaders of proactive teams.
Quiet achievers can benefit from leadership development just as much as extroverted candidates.
“If you can be authentic in the kind of leader you are, [introversion] shouldn’t substantially disadvantage you in a leadership capacity,” says Johnson.