The stereotype of the introvert is of a shy, retiring, bookish person that would rather be curled up with a cocoa than out partying. Worse still, they can be perceived as aloof, complete misanthropes even.
While it is true that introverts are energised by being alone, and extroverts need other people to find their energy, introverts are not necessarily shy, nor do they dislike people, nor are they destined for careers where they can hide behind a filing cabinet. However, when it comes to finding a new job, they can find themselves at a disadvantage compared to more gregarious types.
The extrovert appears self-assured, they are happy to bounce ideas around off-the-cuff, and they inject a great deal of enthusiasm into the proceedings. The introvert, meanwhile, can appear unconfident, too hesitant in their answers, and perhaps rather unfocused. They are also at a disadvantage in the workplace, which increasingly favours open-plan offices, self-promotion and endless brainstorming sessions.
But understanding what makes the introvert tick can help hiring managers uncover talented people, whose skills might otherwise stay hidden – an introvert won’t shout them from the rooftops. And they can also help make the workplace more productive for the introvert. Introverts can also do much to make the hiring manager’s job easier to discover what lies beneath their reserved exterior – while staying true to their natures.
American writer, former lawyer and self-described introvert Susan Cain caused a stir with her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. She argues that while society celebrates the extrovert, people should be themselves. “When you make life choices that are congruent with your temperament, and allow others to do the same, you unleash vast stores of energy. Conversely, when you spend too much time battling your own nature, the opposite happens: you deplete yourself.”
The introvert's workplace
Interestingly, 60% of lawyers are introverts, according to Eva Wisnik, president of Wisnik Career Enterprises in New York, and that rises to 90% of intellectual property lawyers. So much for the image of the ebullient lawyer. In what often feels like an extrovert’s world, this is also a good reminder of the important and successful role introverts play at the highest levels of working and professional life.
As co-founder of The Quiet Leadership Institute, Susan Cain works with businesses on engagement and leadership and helps design quiet workspaces for open office plans. Broadly, around half of the general population identifies as introverts, and yet the institute found that 64% of workers believe their organisation does not fully harness the talents of introverted employees. It also found that 96% of leaders and managers self-identify as extroverts, which means leadership teams are often imbalanced and do not fairly represent a diverse workforce.
Indeed, introverts can make great leaders – but it depends on the team they lead. An article in Psychology Today suggests that an introverted leader with a passive team will not work, but if the team behind them is proactive it can be a winning combination, the leader bringing with them sound listening skills and being in tune with the needs and skills of their colleagues. Extroverts may have charisma and spark but they are best paired with a less proactive team.
So, as a takeaway, here are several key points that will make life easier for introverts, those who hire them, and the ambiverts and extroverts who work with them:
For the introvert
- Be true to yourself – it will be exhausting to pretend otherwise.
- Be honest with yourself – some skills, such as public speaking, can be developed (Susan Cain says she surprised herself by her ability to master this fear) – but that’s not for everyone. You don’t want to dread going to work everyday.
- Learn some techniques from extroverts for when networking and interviews require it – make eye contact and practice open body language.
- Prepare well for interview questions, but if you need time to think over your answer ask for a minute, or say you’d like some time to think about that and can you come back to it at the end.
- Allow yourself some downtime alone to recharge.
- Practice selling yourself – social media makes networking easier, but don’t hide behind it.
For colleagues and the hiring manager
- Be prepared to dig deeper for the hidden depths of the introvert.
- Don’t write them off for the more pedestrian jobs.
- Remember the introvert likes to think before they speak. A pause in an interview is not necessarily a sign that the candidate doesn’t know the answer.
- Look for opportunities where their talents will excel. Is there a fiery ambitious team that needs a leader with strong listening, negotiating and diplomacy skills?
- Make clear the expectations of the role on offer in terms of networking and team-work. Introverts can network but may need time to prepare, or prefer to do it on a one-to-one basis. Also allow them some solitary time.