The Value of Introverts in the Workplace

Workplace diversity comes in many forms. A lot of emphasis is, quite rightly, placed on differences such as gender and ethnicity but diversity in personality type is also worthy of consideration. A broad difference is between extraverts and introverts. The distinction between extraversion and introversion was popularised by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) and has since been applied in various psychological frameworks. Essentially, ‘extraversion’ refers to the state of focusing one’s energy on the outside world, whereas ‘introversion’ refers to focusing one’s energy on the ‘inner world.’

As such, extraverts are likely to be gregarious, talkative and assertive, enjoying interactions with others, including within large groups of people at parties and meetings. Introverts, on the other hand, enjoy solitary time, where they can focus their energies inwardly on reflection and creativity. They tend to be quieter and are less likely to enjoy social interactions, particularly within large groups. 

Whilst society has always prized people of action and confidence, extraversion arguably became the dominant or favoured personality type in the workplace in the early 20th century. Theorists such as Susan Cain, have noted that the growth of cities and the development of big corporations resulted in a culture of competitiveness in which people with extraverted self-confidence and charisma were able to thrive.  People are generally expected to ‘sell themselves’ and draw attention to their talents. Introverts, however, may not feel comfortable ‘blowing their own trumpet’. As such, they risk being underestimated or overlooked for promotion, despite possessing the relevant skills.

The modern workplace is arguably biased towards extraversion. Even the language used in recruitment adverts is geared towards extraverts. Adjectives such as ‘confident’, ‘team player’, ‘dynamic’, ‘outgoing’ or ‘enthusiastic’ may be used to describe the ideal candidate. Introverts may also exhibit these traits, but display them in different ways.

Due to their personality and behaviour introverts may find the following aspects of the modern office uncomfortable:

  • Open plan offices
  • Frequent meetings
  • Lack of audio/visual privacy
  • Presentations
  • Networking events
  • Team building exercises
  • ‘Open’ creative problem-solving exercises such as ‘brainstorming’

This is not to say that introverts cannot participate successfully in these activities or contexts but they are likely to find it more of a challenge and more draining than an extravert would.

So, are there ways in which employers can accommodate the needs of introverts to harness their strengths for the benefit of the organisation?

Everybody is different but many introverts enjoy working in environments where they can get audio and visual privacy. This means having few distractions, perhaps working alone or with a small number of trusted colleagues. Ideally, they may like to work in their own office or cubicle but in the modern workplace this is becoming an increasingly rare luxury.

If they work in jobs that require creativity, they may even get inspiration and valuable ideas from being outside of the office altogether – perhaps taking a quiet walk in the park.

Some employers may not understand or recognise the importance or value of this. However, it is possible to introduce working arrangements that can accommodate the needs of introverts. For example, employers may wish to introduce quiet areas, where employees can work away from the busy parts of the office.

Alternatively, introverts may benefit from flexible working arrangements, such as working from home, where they can get on with work in an environment in which they can be more focused and more comfortable.

Meetings can be structured in a way to ensure that all attendees have an opportunity to speak. An introvert may avoid spontaneous participation but if they were assigned specific time to speak (e.g. to lead on an agenda item), they may be better placed to make a meaningful contribution.

Introverts are likely to prefer meetings with an agenda so that they know what to expect and can prepare their contribution accordingly.

In creative problem-solving sessions, it may be useful to give people the opportunity to look at the problem individually before having a group discussion. This gives introverts the opportunity to use their reflective skills to examine a problem and consider it on their own terms – whereas attempting to solve it as a group simply allows the extraverted personalities to dominate, often missing out on the contribution that an introvert could bring.

Introverts inevitably need to adapt their personality to get on in an extraverted world, but they should not feel pressured into becoming something they are not. Instead they should try to maximise the strengths associated with their personality type. However, an introvert can make subtle changes to their behaviour and embrace some extraverted traits.

Introverts may be content coming into work, sitting at their desk and completing their work without speaking to their colleagues all day. It is not that they are being rude - in fact, they may feel that socialising or interacting with colleagues may be unnecessary and make them unproductive. However, introverts should be encouraged to interact with their colleagues.

It can be helpful to get into the habit of speaking to their colleagues on a daily basis. These conversations could relate to work and provide opportunities for an introvert to build rapport with individuals and perhaps subtly bring attention to their achievements or talents to their colleagues. In time, introverts can build strong relationships with their fellow colleagues.

Introverts may not be best suited to networking events or rapidly building rapport with groups of strangers, but they can build strong bonds with individuals, which may prove beneficial longer term.

An introvert should be proud of their strengths and use them to their advantage. For example, introverts can be very effective and loyal team players, maintaining focus and direction.

Introverts are often suited to leadership positions because they are listeners, allow others to have input and are focused on the task at hand. They can identify the strengths in others and are less concerned with showing off or putting themselves in the limelight.

An inclusive organisational culture therefore welcomes the diversity among its workforce and maximises the strengths, experiences and different perspectives that the team, as a whole, possesses.

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

Get RWA Insight In Your Inbox

Regular business news and commentary delivered direct to your inbox each week. Sign up here