How to harness the power of introverts

Employers that support, train and celebrate their more reserved employees will reap the benefits, say Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton

Introverts make up 50 per cent of the population yet only account for 2 per cent of top executives. ‘Shy’, ‘reticent’, ‘prefer doing things alone’ are a few of the traits that are used to define introverts. However, a recent study by Harvard Business Review found that more than half of the CEOs they surveyed who performed better than expected in the minds of investors and directors were actually introverts. The research also found that highly confident candidates had double the chance of getting the top job, yet were no more likely to perform better after being appointed than those who displayed less confidence. So it appears we are overlooking the capabilities of introverts.

How can we better harness the power of introverts in the workplace? First, it’s important to understand that there is nothing wrong with being an introvert. The strongest teams seek out, celebrate and leverage their diversity, in all its forms. Imagine a world of only extroverts – talk about competing for attention! Most of us sit somewhere on the introversion/extroversion spectrum, rather than being 100 per cent one or the other.

Second, rather than trying to turn introverts into extroverts, hire them for roles and assign them to projects that leverage their strengths and interests. But also remember not to overlook someone for promotion or at the hiring stage simply because they are more introverted. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are less capable of performing the role and, with some targeted coaching or training, they can thrive.

For example, a largely introverted R&D team for a global FMCG corporation felt uncomfortable speaking about their work, which had eroded their ability to influence organisational strategy. The business is built on research, yet the R&D team wasn’t being heard. We prepared them to communicate the business value of their work by introducing a framework for effective technical communication combined with physical intelligence techniques around posure, breathing and resilience techniques that can be used when panicked or overwhelmed.

Third, it’s important to create a work environment where introverts can thrive. For example, most introverts prefer working solo, communicating in writing, reflecting on things, having a degree of autonomy, and having a clearly defined role and objectives.

There are many ways employers can make the work environment easier for introverts:

  • Reflection/recovery time is especially important after intense interpersonal communication to rebalance cortisol (stress), oxytocin (belonging) and dopamine (pleasure) levels.
  • Reduce surprises and allow for sufficient preparation time so that introverts can maintain the right levels of acetylcholine (balance), adrenalin (fear/excitement) and cortisol. The right chemical mix is critical for stress management and healthy energy levels.  
  • Let introverts consider and plan their contribution to meetings by creating agendas in advance.  
  • Schedule breaks between meetings. Back-to-back meetings are especially unrewarding and demotivating for introverts, draining energy and engagement.  
  • Don’t overlook introverts for promotion – although traditionally not strong self-promoters, introverts are often successful managers because they carefully assess competencies and delegate very effectively.
  • Even when in the right role, at times introverts need to engage in more extroverted activities and should be encouraged to move beyond their comfort zone.

With the right support and training, introverts can communicate more assertively and with confidence, while remaining true to themselves, and by doing so their value can be more broadly communicated across the business. If you embrace and celebrate your introverts (and all diversity) and encourage your team to do the same, you’ll be better positioned to adapt and thrive in today’s ever-changing business environment.

Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton are directors of Companies in Motion, and authors of Physical Intelligence