I remember my first experience working in cubicle-land: radio playing in the cubicle next to me, constant hum of voices interrupted occasionally by the sounds of a teleconference blasting over a less-than-considerate colleague’s phone, bursts of laughter, high-energy discussions.
The manager was an extrovert who did not think twice about it. She revelled in this upbeat, high-energy environment and simply assumed that it would be invigorating for everyone.
Yet for the introverts who thought best in silence, it was a nightmare.
Without being able to change it, we conformed. I knew how to join in, appear extroverted, upbeat and give off positive energy. The extroverts in the group were energized by being around others, and my being there gave them what they needed.
But what about what I needed?
As an introvert, I work best when I can hear myself think and can recharge my battery in quiet. This work environment was the exact opposite:it was like a slow (and other days fast) leak of air from a tire, leaving me flat by the end of the day. I would bring my flat tire home, pump it up again with quiet time and then start all over again the next day.
It was not until I moved to a different office (still cubicles, but this time quiet) that I realized just how much of a toll the former environment had on me. It also made me think: What can supervisors/managers do to help create a positive experience for our introspective-thinking staff?
Introverts in an Extrovert World
In the recent bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain talks about how modern culture continues to reward extroverts and overlooks the contributions of quiet thinkers.
Although she is careful to point out that very few of us are clear introverts or extroverts, her research shows that society favors those that are on the extroverted end of the spectrum, calling it the rise of the “Extrovert Ideal.”
Cain’s book shines a spotlight on the far-reaching effects of this and how we all lose when the quiet thinker is not given the space and quiet for their innovative, creative minds to work at their best.
So how, as managers, do we create an environment that is respectful of both — extroverts who get energized by others and introverts who crave quiet — when their needs seem different?
1. Understand the differences
Remember that no one is all introvert or all extrovert — it is a spectrum. Those that are more extroverted get fired up and work their best when they are around others. For the more introverted, their ideas come to them in the quiet of their own thoughts. One is not better or worse than the other — they are simply different.
Yet, chances are you will have employees that are caught up in the “Extrovert Ideal” and think the introverts just need to lighten up, join in and be more social. Learning to respect differences is important.
Where might we be without some of these famous introverts: Albert Einstein, Warren Buffet, Chopin, Darwin, Gandhi, Newton, Al Gore, Larry Page, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, J.K. Rowling, Steven Spielberg and Steve Wozniak?
2. Break the stereotype that introverted means shy and less socially adept
The quiet self-reflection time that introverts crave and the solitary work conditions they prefer are often misunderstood. It does not necessarily mean they lack social skills or the ability to connect with others.
When you see this list of names — Johnny Carson, Matt Lauer, David Letterman, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters — do you think shy or socially inept?
Most would agree that these people have good communication skills. Yet each of these people self-identify as introverts. You can be introverted and still connect very well with others — you may even appear extroverted when you do. The difference is that for an extrovert, you would likely find these socially interactions highly energizing. For the more introverted it is the opposite: Social activity is draining; quiet time is rejuvenating.
3. Lead with the needs of the introverts
We tend to look down at the introvert who needs time to reflect, seeing this as wasted time. Often the tendency is to go straight into group-think mode. At first glance, it seems to work: Thoughts are bounced around, they pick up momentum and great ideas emerge.
The problem? Without giving the introspective thinkers time to mull it over they likely did not bring their A-game into the process: A lose-lose situation for all.
Instead of leading with the needs of the extroverts (i.e. going straight into brainstorming), the order has to be reversed. Give the introspective, quiet thinkers their time alone first, then bring them to the table where their ideas can be shared, bounced around and built up on. Good for the introverts and for the extroverts: a win-win, all around.
4. Turn down the volume in shared space
In cubicle areas, think about whether you can prioritize the needs of the quiet thinkers. Meeting rooms (with doors) can be used to create synergizing spaces for ideas to be bounced around. For those that need sound to get their creative juices flowing, headphones might be an option.
The quiet thinker cannot turn off the sounds of a high-energy work environment quite so easily, so finding ways to turn down the volume in shared spaces (without turning it into a tomb) is worth exploring.
5. Build on strengths
The more extroverted can learn from the more introverted and vice versa. Each has strengths. It is about honoring the uniqueness of each and building on strengths. As a manger, realize that you will get more out of an introspective, quiet thinker in a setting that meets their needs.
A quiet thinker can still get a lot done in an over-stimulating work environment, but it likely will not be their best work (and they will likely be exhausted afterwards). A quiet work environment, where they can hear themselves think, will produce better results in less time.
Will cubicle-land ever be the ideal work environment for the more introspective, quiet thinker? Likely not, as the theory behind cubicles is much more conducive to the synergistic way that extroverts work. Can we make it more friendly to the needs of introverts? With the right manager — one who wants to bring out the best in all their staff — I believe it can be done.