Susan Cain is an expert when it comes to interpreting how well introverts and extroverts can work in a modern professional world. She focuses on exploring ways to tap-in to the quieter contingent–in the workplace, the classroom, and elsewhere–whose input we cannot afford to waste. In this Harvard Business Review article, Cain lends her expertise about how to be a good manager for people on both sides of the personality spectrum:
As the boss, your goal is to have all your employees operating at their peak level of energy, efficiency, and motivation—which can be a challenge when it comes to leading a team comprised of introverts and extroverts. How do you manage these vastly different personalities and work preferences? How do you draw out your introverts and get your extroverts to listen? What’s the best way to adapt your management style so that it works for everyone?
What the Experts Say
Until recently, personality types and human dynamics were not typically the stuff of work conversations but that is changing, says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. “We are now at a point in corporate culture where it has become socially acceptable to talk about this.” For good reason, she says. “Introversion and extroversion go to the heart of who a person is: how they work, how they live, and how they interact.” Coming to terms with this element of team diversity isn’t always straightforward. Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, advises approaching the managerial challenge from a “mindset of understanding and curiosity.” Here’s how to create an environment that maximizes each of your colleagues’ strengths and temperaments and ensures that everyone’s needs are met.
Extroverts and introverts take “dramatically different approaches to work and social processes,” says Cain. Understanding these preferences will help you become a keen observer of “the people who are part of your team and what drives them,” says Gino. Extroverts, for instance, tend to tackle their assigned work promptly; they’re quick, sometimes rash decision makers. They’re comfortable with risk-taking and multitasking. “On the other hand, introverts work more deliberately and slowly. They prefer to concentrate on a single task at a given time.” Extroverts gravitate toward groups and they tend to think out loud. “They are energized by social gatherings and shared ideas,” she says. In contrast, introverts typically dislike noise and big group settings—“they may enjoy business meetings and some parties, but after a moment they wish they were at home with some good books.”
Talk to your team
You don’t need to give everyone on your team a Myers-Briggs test to figure out who’s an extrovert or introvert because in most cases, “it’s pretty clear,” says Cain. That said, some introverts are not immediately identifiable “because they are practiced at acting like extroverts.” In other words, they appear sociable and outgoing at work, but as soon as they get home, they collapse on the couch from exhaustion. To get a handle on your colleagues’ preferences, you should “encourage frank and open conversations with people as individuals and as a team,” she says. Ask questions like: In your ideal workday, how many meetings do you attend? How do you like to get your work done? How do you recharge? Cain notes that some introverts might be reluctant to open up. If that’s the case she recommends providing your team with reading materials about the quiet power of introverts, pointing to high-profile, successful introverts, such as Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer at General Electric, or “identifying a leader in your organization who is an introvert and willing to talk about it publicly.” Talk to your team, too, about the ways in which personality differences drive performance. After all, says Gino, “a properly balanced team has the strengths and skills of both personality sets, whereas a team of too many extroverts can suffer from ego issues, while a team of too many introverts can be lacking a shared team dynamic.”
Rethink the workday
Your next step is to use the information you glean about your individual team members’ personalities and predilections to formulate norms and “dynamics that are respectful to everyone,” says Cain. Start by looking at how you structure the workday. In Cain’s office, for instance, there is a policy of no meetings before 12:30pm. “This gives people who prefer head down time the freedom to have that, but it also gives extroverts the knowledge that there will be time to talk things out,” she says. It’s wise to give your team ample uninterrupted work time by “not having so many meetings in the first place,” she says. “Research on brainstorming shows that individuals come up with more ideas and better ideas than groups of people brainstorming—this is true of extroverts as well as introverts,” she says. Most important, though, give your team members flexibility to manage their workdays as they see fit. Encourage extroverts to socialize and share ideas when they feel compelled to and “give introverts the freedom to take a walk to recharge or work from the coffee shop next door” if they need a break from team togetherness, she says.
The workplace—particularly the modern American workplace, with its open floor plans and emphasis on constant collaboration—can seem like it’s built for extroverts. But a research suggests that we all— especially introverts—need private space to get work done. So think about small design changes you might make to create “nooks and crannies for people to go and be alone,” she says. These include individual tucked away workstations or even “quiet zones” similar to quiet cars on trains. You can also help your team develop cultural practices whereby colleagues “signal to others that they’re not be interrupted,” she adds. For example, in some offices people wear headphones to indicate that they’re in concentration mode. At the same time, you need to make sure that your extroverts don’t get discouraged by everyone retreating to their cubes. So maintain or create spaces for gatherings and random encounters too – for example, coffee break areas, communal lunch tables, lounge rooms.
Encourage introverts to speak up…
Research indicates that in a typical six-person meeting, two people do more than 60% of the talking. In bigger groups, the problem is worse. According to Gino, the key to drawing out introverted employees is “to make them feel comfortable enough to contribute.” Since a direct request for feedback might put your introverted colleagues on the spot, “you could tell them in advance that you would like them to contribute so they come prepared.” Sharing the meeting agenda a few days prior is helpful here so that introverts can think about how they want to convey their ideas “rather than having to improvise in the moment.” At Amazon, she says, every meeting begins in total silence. “Before any conversation can occur, everyone must quietly read a memo about the meeting, which gives introverted team members the time they need to formulate their thoughts and, for some, build up the courage to share them with the rest of the team.” She also recommends that from time to time you ask people to write instead of speak in meetings. “Have your team write their ideas and suggestions on slips of paper that you put up on a white board for everyone to read,” she says. “This avoids people having to jockey for airtime.”
…And extroverts to listen
Extroverts often bring enthusiasm and candor to meetings, and you want to encourage that. But you must also teach them to “listen, reflect, and become more open to the perspectives of their more silent peers,” Gino says. Cain suggests talking to the dominant personality—or personalities—on your team one-on-one. “It doesn’t have to be loaded or a big deal—it’s not a critique,” she explains. Instead, you want to acknowledge all the good things they bring to the table but then ask them to consider “tweaking” their behavior to allow others to be heard. Challenge them to draw their more introverted colleagues out while still staying true to themselves.
Principles to Remember
- Balance social spaces with private ones
- Send the meeting agenda in advance and occasionally ask for written feedback to give introverts time to formulate their thoughts and summon the courage to share them
- Allow people to work the way they want to; extroverts should feel comfortable taking time to socialize, while introverts should have license to work remotely or take breaks from the team
- Assume you already know everything about introversion and extroversion—make an effort to learn about how personality impacts work preferences and styles
- Overload your team with meetings; give colleagues ample uninterrupted work time during the day
- Let a certain dominant personality do all the talking; encourage that person to reflect and listen
Case Study #1: Talk to your team members about how they prefer to work and learn
A couple years ago, Margaret “Meg” Sheetz, the President and COO of Medifast, the nutrition and weight-loss company, had a problem with team dynamics. “I am an extrovert—I like to brainstorm and talk stuff out—and I was highly frustrated because some people were not engaging the way I wanted them to,” she says.
After discussing the issue with one of her HR colleagues, Meg had her team take the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator. Her goal, she says, was to get “an understanding of who was in the room.” The entire management team took the test and discussed its results together. “We talked about our gifts and talents, what motivates us, and how each of us makes a contribution to the company based on our strengths,” she says.
The conversation helped Meg think about how to get the best from each individual—particularly when it comes to team meetings. She now emails the introvert on her team agenda items beforehand. “I say, ‘I need you to come to the meeting tomorrow with your ideas on these three specific things.’ It gives her time to focus and prepare,” Meg says. Meg doesn’t provide the extroverts on her team with as much information beforehand because she knows “they’re better on the fly.”
The Myers-Briggs test results and the subsequent discussion also gave her a new appreciation for introverts in general. “We have an introvert who does all our training and presentations and you’d never know he was an introvert because he’s so good on stage and so personable,” she says. “He talked to us about how he hasn’t let his introversion stop his career growth and also how he’s adapted his management style for the extroverts on his team.”
That director has also become somewhat of an ambassador for other introverted personalities at the company. “I think there is an assumption that an introvert is someone who sits in a cubicle with his head down and can’t drive and inspire people—but that’s not true. We value introverts and their management style.”
Case Study #2: Provide structure and encourage feedback in multiple formats
Mat Brogie, the COO of Repsly—the Boston-based software company focused on mobile customer relationship management, oversees a marketing team of two people. “One is very much an extrovert, the other is very much an introvert,” he says. “My job as their manager is to get them to the point where they’re most comfortable so they can perform at their best.”
Recently, for instance, Mat led a meeting on the topic of implementing an Agile methodology into the company’s marketing unit. When Mat finished his portion of the presentation, his introverted employee shied away from providing feedback, while his extroverted colleague “gave his input right away—I didn’t even have to ask.”
Mat let his extrovert do the talking, but he made sure to follow up with his introvert after the meeting, one-on-one, to solicit her ideas. She sent him an email the next day with her perspective. “My philosophy is to let people be who they are but make sure they all have an equal opportunity [to say their piece]. I welcome different types of feedback. And I don’t want to put people on the spot or put them in an awkward situation.”
At the same time, Mat wants to make sure his introverted employees have a voice at the table that others hear, too. Repsly doesn’t have many meetings, but the company does gather every day at 8:30am for a 15-minute morning scrum. Each team member is allotted one to 2 minutes to give an update. “It’s a format that works for everyone. Because it’s structured, the introverts can prepare for it. They know ‘These are the things I need to say and I say them in this order.’ They don’t feel uncomfortable, and they get to practice being a little more out there.”