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Employee Engagement for Introverts

Do you know who the introverts are in the workplace?

Recently, I met a fellow trainer at a networking event for trainers, and he told me how he was by nature quite introverted.

“To do what I do as a trainer and businessman,” he said, “I had to learn the behaviour of extroverts.”

That made me think about my sister. My sister was probably the best educated two year old you’d ever meet.


Well, when I started primary school, I would watch and listen intently to everything that happened during the day.

I’d then go home, sit her down in front of the chalkboard our parents had put up in our room, and teach her what I’d learned. In class, though, I wasn’t so active.

Every report card would come back with the same gentle criticism comment: “clever, does not participate.”

My sister was probably the best educated two year old you’d ever meet.

In fact, years later, my mother came out to visit me at grad school, and we went out to lunch with my PhD chair, who said to her, “Jasmine’s got such good ideas. I wish she’d participate!”

So imagine how I felt when I got my first job as a professor. I completely failed. I went home and cried.

And then, I said to myself, “I’m never failing in that particular way again.”

The day I learnt the behaviour of extroverts

It was the day that I began to learn the behaviour of extroverts. And, by the way, I really enjoy it – it just didn’t come naturally.

Some people define as introversion and extroversion as a continuum of personality traits (see Jung, for example) – turning inwards or outwards for gratification – whilst others define it in terms of how a person reacts to outside stimuli.

By that latter definition, my husband who is the life of the party and a great storyteller, is an introvert – he cannot work unless there is absolute quiet.

On the other hand, I would qualify as an extrovert – normally, I’m quiet and prefer to be reading my book, but without a whole load of outside stimulation, I cannot work – normally, I’ve got at least two radios playing, preferably in different languages.I can work in a café; he can’t.

Susan Cain suggests that Western culture seems to prize extroversion as a reaction to industrialisation: before industrialisation, everyone lived in small groups and knew each other – character (our inner self) was enough.

But as people moved to cities, and lived amongst strangers, the people who were successful were the ones who could draw attention to themselves, who could literally stand out in a crowd: extroverts. (According to Cain’s personality test, I’m an ambivert.)

Do we reward the behaviour of extroversion?

Right now, it seems that there is an emphasis on rewarding the behaviour of extroversion – for example, noisy open plan offices and risk-taking (not to mention table tennis).

And yet, introverts are a brilliant counterbalance to extroverts – for every risk-taking extrovert, there will be an introvert who can think about whether the risk is worth taking.

Thinking things through alone can mean less susceptibility to group think. Equally, collaboration gets people places that thinking alone might never do. Social skills and teamwork are essential to getting things done.

The best traits of introversion and extroversion go hand-in-hand, and they also balance out each other’s worst traits.

How does this relate to employee engagement?

It seems that quite a few engagement strategies are directed at extroverts – having fun, team-related activities, being go-getting, brainstorming, open-space offices, and so on.

So here are a few tips to engage your introverts:

  • Create physical space for reflection – a space that’s quiet and secluded, away from the open plan office

  • Create mental space for reflection – for example, apparently at Amazon, meetings begin with 30 minutes of silent reading

  • Understand that an engaged extrovert might look different to an engaged introvert – think about how their behaviours might differ

  • Finally, think about ways that you can bring the two types together and improve their understanding of each other so they can work together effectively

What’s your experience? What misunderstandings have you had when you’ve interacted with someone who is opposite to you in terms of extroversion and introversion? What have you learned from these experiences?

This article was first published by HRZone

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