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The importance of valuing introverted talent

Joanna Rawbone, Founder - Flourishing Introverts

The war for talent is well documented so now is the time to ensure that you’re making the most of the quieter talent you already have.

Somehow, extraverted behaviours became the cultural norm and even the ideal in business. How many people have you given feedback to about needing to speak up more, push themselves forward and even attend the social events?  This is evidence of the extraversion bias in everyday practices and processes.

Fiske’s much vaunted Big 5 Personality Traits that included extraversion as a desirable trait for managers and leaders didn’t help the situation. It implies that extraverts are more assertive and happier. The work I do with clients shows that introverts are just as happy when they’re appreciated for their quiet application at work and their ability to listen effectively to their colleagues. Then there were people like Dale Carnegie training people how to be more extraverted in order to be more influential.  This is what Susan Cain, author of Quiet; The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, refers to as engineered extraversion. And it’s taking it’s toll on introverts. Years or decades of pretending to be something they’re not in order to fit in with this bias leaves introverts feeling not OK about themselves.

It’s all too easy to overlook the introverts in your business as they keep their heads down and quietly get on with their work.  They rarely draw attention to themselves and yet notice so much of what actually happens in the workplace. Since the start of the global pandemic, so many have rediscovered the joy of family life, (even if they have been home-schooling) and appreciated the additional time that not having to commute has delivered. Many have reassessed their options with the preference to continue working from home being clearly expressed.  All the more disappointing then, that one or two of the Silicon Valley greats have suggested they’re considering lowering the pay of those who choose to work from home.

What message does this send to the loyal employees who, at very short notice have toiled valiantly to keep businesses afloat in difficult circumstances?

  • That presenteeism is back in fashion? Susie Dent shared a fabulous C17th word about being extremely busy whilst achieving nothing; Spuddle.
  • That those who do their work from somewhere other than the office are somehow shirking their responsibilities?
  • That we need to see people to trust that they’re doing the work?

If any of these contain even a grain of truth, it’s a sorry indictment on the state of leadership & management today. Let’s remember work is what we do, not where we go and in today’s global business landscape, the open-plan office that became popular in the 1940s is now assuming less importance.

Some organisations will argue that collaboration is impaired when people are not face-to-face in an office. And yet, global teams have thrived for decades and with the tech we now have, collaboration really isn’t the issue.  There is talk of collaborative overload, which is certainly true for introverts. Add to the mix the growth of email traffic, even within an office and it points to people still resisting talking to one another and that’s not just the introverts.

Is this a significant enough issue for you to worry about?
Well, with up to 50% of any population identifying as an introvert, I’d say that makes it worthy of consideration.  Sadly, introverts are still misunderstood and much maligned.  Introversion is actually an aspect of neurodiversity that the wise DEI leaders have sought to understand.  Often conflated with shyness, depression, social anxiety, lack of ambition or timidity, introversion is simply where an individual gets their mental energy from. Already overstimulated mentally, introverts struggle to navigate the energy drain that is the open-plan office and will often isolate themselves in order to do their best work; the very thing we employ people for.  Sadly, introverted behaviour attracts criticism and ridicule rather than praise and recognition. It’s not unusual for introverts to get classified as B or even C talent, rather than A talent. The question is, how much of a disservice are we doing them?

And more to the point, what impact does that have on your organisational culture? We employ whole people and since utilising virtual meetings more out of necessity, we have met their pets, their children and their spouses.  We have seen into their kitchens or other workspaces, heard the birdsong through their open windows and seen them in their chosen surroundings. Now we’ve reverted to saying that was just a blip and that we value people who put their professional lives ahead of their personal and family lives. This way disaster lies. I agree that there is no place for the underperforming C players if we’ve done all we can to enable their development. But, that doesn’t mean trying to make everyone behave as an extravert who thrives on social interaction and active experiences. Where is the diversity and equitable inclusion in that? That is the engineered extraversion that Cain referred to.

The reality is, introverts will have found it easier to be more productive and get into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines as a flow state, where someone becomes so involved in a task or activity that they’re nothing else really matters, when they’re working somewhere quiet. This is certainly a desirable state for employees to work from as productivity is enhanced, and work becomes more joyful from here.  However, this is rarely achievable in a busy open plan office with its inherent distractions.

Microsoft’s own research showed that during the pandemic when so many were working from home, productivity increased dramatically but it masked overwhelm and even burn-out.  That absolutely needs addressing but no by enforcing the return to the office.

So in this war for talent, what are the skills really required to lift your business to the next level?
Is it more noise or more application? More pushing and reacting or more listening and responding?  More fast, knee-jerk reactions or more thought through creativity?

Recognising and valuing the natural talents and strengths of introverts goes a long way to satisfying the latter in each of the above examples and will contribute to the competitive edge you’re looking for.  It will also give you an enviable edge when it comes to talent attraction and retention. We know just how costly these activities are, so it makes perfect commercial and business sense to fully utilise existing talent first. Thankfully, it’s not necessarily about casting the net wider but looking at the catch you have, appreciating the hidden talent and enabling it to flourish. You may need to remove the bias from your recruitment processes if you are casting your nets again so that you’re not discounting or discouraging the quieter applicants in your process. Consider where the quieter introverts might add something to the mix.

Where do you need:

  • Better listening so that misunderstandings are reduced?
  • A management or leadership style that empowers others?
  • A calm presence that defuses conflict?
  • Less chatter and more meaningful and generative conversations?
  • More diligent research and problem solving?

These are just some of the natural talents of an introvert and if you’re not identifying and managing them in an equitable and inclusive manner, you’re contributing to the bias and missing out on vital business qualities.

In Conclusion

Make it your business to develop your understanding of this aspect of neurodiversity, whatever your role.  There is no good & bad, just different, and with up to half of any population identifying as introverts, they will be in your workforce.

Actively dispel the myths in order to create an inclusive business culture. It will deliver measurable benefits.

We all have responsibility for reducing and ultimately eliminating this bias, for the health and wellbeing of employees.  It’s part of our duty of care.

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