Introverted – and happy in your Job!

In many respects an introvert’s life in today’s society is tough. In our western culture, the qualities of the extrovert are at first glance much more valued than those of the introvert: Quick, competitive, socially competent, action orientated, assertive, sociable, active … the list is almost endless. “Just do it!” the athletic company Nike’s slogan puts a point to it: Get going, move, and act! And that with a healthy dose of self-confidence, optimism, candor and a touch of the old elbow action, if you please. Then you are successful, professionally as well as privately. Then the world is your oyster, people admire you and seek your company. You are the radiant center of the party and no one has the chance to miss your professional achievements. You don’t just take the initiative and strive for quick results but you are also familiar with, and heed the old proverb: “You have to blow your own trumpet.” You cultivate contacts and networks for all they are worth and not merely in real life, in the virtual sphere of social networks, as well. You are the master of the extraversion claviature and work it with a fine ear for society’s demands and rules.
In that respect introverts frequently have a much tougher time. Not just because they detest grandstanding and forcefully putting their foot down and therefore all too often don’t receive the professional as well as private recognition they deserve. Another simple reason: They are minority. Statistics about this vary somewhat; in our society you find at least two, and some claim even three extroverts for each introvert. No wonder that the introverted among us are practically simply steamrolled by the pure dominance of the extroverts. When they don’t feel like participating in some social enterprise or just sit there lost in thought they have to suffer through concerned questions like: “Is there something wrong with you?“ Extroverts tend to assume that anyone not as interested as themselves in a continuous exchange and contact with others must be suffering from some deficit and urgently needs help. Their well meant attempts to encourage introverts to participate in more social activities, initiative and openness with “you need to get out and do some socializing, in here you’ll only stagnate!” only serve to quickly put introverts on the defensive. Hardly anyone would dream of criticizing an extrovert: “Don’t you think that there is a little too much activity in your life? A few less friends surely won’t hurt you!” On the other hand introverts often have to justify their life style and are frequently wrongly seen as unhappy loners.

Self Doubt and Perfectionism – a difficult Combination

Introverts are anything but unhappy by nature, on the contrary: in their quiet way many of them probably experience deeper and more authentic feelings of happiness than the sometimes superficial fun excesses enjoyed by many extroverts. On the other hand it can be said with some justification that introverts do have to deal professionally with more severe self doubts than are experienced by extroverts. In case you have read my Blog contribution “Introversion – a Health Risk?” you are already familiar with one reason for this: their higher capability and willingness for introspection. Introverts more intensely and more frequently deal with themselves, their life and capabilities than do extroverts. Therefore it is inevitable that they question themselves and their activities more frequently than extroverts. Beyond that they have an aversion to position themselves in the limelight, self-aggrandizement in front of others or asking to be recognized for their work would never occur to them. Therefore superiors or colleagues often not only overlook them and their achievements but frequently others even reap their well-deserved laurels. Consequently introverts receive considerably less praise and positive feed back on the job than do extroverts – and that in turn can naturally fuel and feed those self doubts.

Beyond that, many introverts have to deal with a overdose of perfectionism that makes their life even more difficult. For extroverts, - especially the practical types among them – it is of primary importance that projects get started, that they have the feeling to be doing something. In their eyes it is not absolutely necessary to have thought everything through to the tiniest little detail and to have anticipated every possible outcome – the main thing: things are up and running. Just do it! – just get going, let‘s cross the bridges when we get to them. Course corrections can always be taken on the way. On the other hand, introverts don’t begin - regardless whether with words or actions - until they are convinced to have thought everything through and have collected all humanly possible competencies. The result of that which they are striving for must be perfect – and how can they possibly start anything without being perfectly prepared? This perfectionist aspiration can well become paralyzing and then introverts don’t get to be active, at all. Instead of just “doing” and having faith that things are somehow going to work out and the road ahead is going to be there, they sit like the proverbial paralyzed rabbit facing the snake – pardon me, task – and wait for the magic moment when they are going to feel up to it. Obviously this moment occurs only on the rare occasion because most tasks in life are much too complex for us to accomplish them perfectly.

Misunderstood and unappreciated

Introverts don’t blather. They need time to coordinate their thoughts and don’t talk until they sense that they have something important to contribute and when they know exactly how they are going to put it. They can take silence much better than extroverts; they don’t see it as a threat but a welcome opportunity to think and catch their inner breath. Consequently many prefer to work alone, at home or else during unusual times when everybody else in the office has already called it a day. On the other hand many are also caught up having to hold their ground in an extrovert-dominated profession. They suffer through endless team meetings, brainstormings and business meals with customers and constantly think of the words coined by Albert Einstein “Quiet would be the condition if people would only talk about things they know about.” They are called upon to do power point presentations in front of large groups that keep them awake nights because they feel the pressure. Half the time they are dizzy from the speed in which discussions are conducted around them, decisions are made and reversed. The other half of the time they curse Graham Bell for inventing the phone and associated endless interruptions of their concentration. On Wednesday, they are already frantically pondering how they can get out of the Friday evening drink with their peers and they regularly catch a nasty flu well in advance of the annual company outing.

Extroverts frequently consider this demeanor to be strange, in the best case as timid and in the worst case scenario even as arrogant. They don’t get it that their pace and continuous talking are about to drive introverts out of their mind and that they don’t even give them the opportunity to show their qualities – they just don’t give them the time they need. Before the introvert even has the chance to think about and respond to the first question, he is already bombarded with the second, the third and fourth with the extroverts turning away disappointed and irritated when there is no reaction. With several extroverts at the table, the introvert can’t get a word in edgewise because they insist on talking simultaneously and interrupting each other. No space far and wide giving him/her the opportunity to say something, as well. When everything is said and done, the extroverts shake their heads and ask themselves whether the introvert had nothing to say because he/she does not have a grasp of the subject, or whether he/she is just uncooperative and not a team player. Probably the latter – because he/she is also always too good to have a drink with them and none of the other colleagues know anything about him/her personally. Well, probably just a nerd. The extroverts shrug their shoulders and return to their agenda. The introvert feels ignored, steamrolled and misunderstood but has no clue what to do in order to change that. And potentially retreats even further within himself and his (intellectual) world.
Introverts don’t like to talk about themselves – that applies to their private- as well as their professional life. For one this is naturally also caused by the fact that they are uncomfortable occupying center stage, the other reason is their tendency to defend their private sphere like the lioness defends her cubs. They hate to sense someone intruding into their space uninvited and that applies to their living- as well as their emotional space. Another reason introverts are so withdrawn: It usually does not occur to them that others might just want to share more of their life and feelings and learn more about them. They don’t consider their complex intellectualism nor profound thoughts, not even their comprehensive knowledge about many things as something special. Consequently they only show that which is necessary and especially professionally waste lots of opportunities for success and appreciation.

Typical job related Communication Problems among Extroverts and Introverts

Extroverts like to talk, a lot and fast. That conveys the impression that they are more dynamic, self assured and active than introverts who rarely speak up and if, then slowly, often rather quietly and deliberately. For introverts (keyword perfectionism!) it is extremely important to select the right words for their thoughts – as a result they pause frequently when they talk. Extroverts frequently react impatiently and irritated – why doesn’t he/she get to the point and spits it out? Frequently they interrupt the introvert because they can’t stand their slower speaking tempo. Consequently extroverts also often perceive introverts as being insecure, indecisive or disinterested about the subject. If he/she really knew what he/she is thinks or wants, he/she would not take forever to formulate it, no?!

A problem open plan offices frequently represent to introverts is their high noise- and stimuli level. As you may have read in the contribution “Introversion – a health risk?” introverts react much more quickly with stress to external stimuli than do extroverts. An office an introvert must share with one or two extroverts can already dramatically impede his/her ability to concentrate, reduce his/her productivity and job satisfaction. If an extrovert has the choice between telephone and e-mail to communicate, he/she will invariably reach for the telephone. Likewise he is never averse to chewing the fat with a passing colleague, or when the opportunity arises he visits with the colleague at his next to the neighboring desk for a few words. Extroverts quite frequently talk to themselves: “Where did I put that darn XYZ file again?” or “Pew, its sure hot today!” One or two colleagues like that in the same room with an introvert and he/she is probably close to acute hearing loss at the end of the day.

Extroverts frequently also have problems appreciating how much introverts can be irritated by interruptions. The extrovert generally regards the colleague who sticks his/her head into the door “just to ask a quick question” as a welcome diversion. Extroverts have no problem to resume their work routine afterwards. For introverts on the other hand, it is a lot more difficult to regain his/her deep concentration and train of thought after an interruption like that. For that reason most introverts hate interruptions like that with a vengeance, something that an extrovert can never understand. They see the colleague who stares at them with knitted eye brows and clearly is in no mood to deal with their “just a quick” question simply as uncooperative and sullen.

Last but not least, introverts tend to avoid physical contact more than extroverts. That also includes eye contact. During a conversation they less frequently make eye contact with their counterpart and tend to look sideways or down. Shaking hands, back slapping or other greeting- or congratulation rituals that are natural for extroverts are often uncomfortable for introverts. Introverts also smile less often than extroverts. In one respect all of that has to do with their elevated sensitivity to stimuli and also with their propensity to defend their private space. Extroverts are frequently irritated and sometimes even rebuffed and snubbed by this behavior. Why doesn’t he/she look at me when I talk to him/her? Isn’t he/she listening, or is he/she bored? Does he/she dislike me because he/she studiously avoids any physical contact and never smiles? That can lead to misunderstandings among colleagues and unnecessarily complicate any daily cooperation.

What to do?

Take another really close look at your work place: Are you taking advantage of all opportunities to secure undisturbed time and avenues for retreat? Flexible work times, “no telephone” times, a “Please don’t Disturb” sign on the door or one Home-Office-Day a week can often do wonders. Work a little on your extraversion. Sure, you are introverted - nothing wrong with it and it should stay that way. This just involves a tiny bit more contact at work. No worries, you can do that. Your colleagues will suddenly see you in a totally different light and your good ideas have a much better chance of being appreciated. It is not as if you have to start out with something super personal – maybe you can manage to drop a few words about one of your hobbies while waiting with one of your colleagues for the elevator? Or maybe holler “here” when the search is on among the colleagues for someone to collect signatures for the section chief’s birthday card or money for the gift?

It‘s perfectly ok if you need time to arrange your thoughts and therefore don’t want to start talking. However, especially in the work environment it can be very important to explain your silence to your (extroverted) colleagues so they don’t mistake it for disinterest, insecurity or ignorance. Just say something like: “That is an interesting question. I would like to think about that a bit and then get back to you.” Or, on the day after the meeting send an E-mail to the participants where you write: “After our meeting I did some thinking and came up with the following points: . . . “ If someone interrupts you when you speak up in a meeting, defend yourself: “Just a moment please, I was not finished!”

If the noise level at your workplace bothers you or if you are too frequently distracted or interrupted, have a word with your superior. Maybe there is a possibility for a private office? Be open about it when your roommate’s continuous telephone conversations keep ruining your concentration – every superior is interested to increase the productivity of his employees. In case the idea with the private office is out of the question: Possibly during certain times of the work day you could simply use Oropax in order to acoustically isolate yourself a little? Place one or two large plants between yourself and the corridor where people are continuously are passing by? Or maybe divide the room between yourself and your colleague with a screen? When considering all these measures it is obviously important to discuss this with your colleagues and explain the reason why you are contemplating this. Otherwise someone could quickly feel snubbed. When everybody understands where you are coming from, your colleagues will surely be cooperative.

During meetings with several extroverts try to express your opinion at least once or twice, even if this means that you have to raise your voice or interrupt someone. (Why don’t you observe the others – you’ll see that they continuously do that to each other, so you are free to do that, as well!) It gets easier if you take some notes about points that are important to you in advance or while the others are talking. Watch your voice – don’t speak too softly. If that is something with which you have a problem (especially in front of groups), invest in speech training, it will do wonders. (By the way, a great movie on the subject: “The King’s Speech” with Colin Firth!)

Watch your behavior in matters of physical contact vis à vis your colleagues. Can you manage to maintain eye contact most of the time throughout a conversation, to smile occasionally and nod approvingly? Or do you avoid these things as much as possible? If that is the case, it may be a good idea to occasionally go beyond your basic inclinations. This does not mean that you open all the doors to your private space, but that you signalize interest and empathy, which is something extroverts value immensely. It can make your life at work one heck of a lot easier!