EHS Today editor Laura Walter

The Break Room: Five Tips to Help Introverts Navigate Work Relationships

When introverts and extroverts mix in the workplace, things can get complicated. These tips will help introverts ensure their needs are met so they can work effectively even in an office full of extroverts.

I’m an introvert. At times, I can be very social or even gregarious, but in general, I prefer to be alone with my thoughts. An evening out with friends can be great fun, but after a certain point, I will always look forward to retreating into some alone time. That’s how I recharge and it’s when I feel most comfortable. Some people in my life, meanwhile, are clearly the opposite – they crave social interaction and feed off that energy.

With more information available now than ever about introverts and extroverts, we have a better understanding of what it means to be introverted. (See The Atlantic’s “Caring for Your Introvert” to start.) The fact that I’d rather spend a Saturday night reading on the couch while a friend or colleague prefers to hit the town and expand his or her social circle isn’t generally a problem. People are different, and I think we all recognize that. But when introverts bump up against extroverts in the workplace, things can get complicated.

In a March 2012 TED Talk, "The Power of Introverts," Susan Cain says, "Our most important institutions – our schools and our workplaces – they are designed mostly for extroverts, and extroverts' need for lots of stimulation." So how can employers help make introverted and extroverted workers alike comfortable, and how can introverted workers work effectively in a potentially extroverted-biased work environment?

According to Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, nearly half of the American work force is comprised of introverts. She offers five tips to help introverts navigate the workplace and work relationships:

1. Get what you need to do your work. If you need a quieter place to work, see if you can use an empty conference room or borrow a vacant office. If you need more information before forming a response,  say so and get it. If you need to be recognized without having to yell, establish new ways of making yourself known.

2. Find ways to express yourself, introvert style. Ask for one-on-one time to explain an idea, and make others aware that you give your best input when you don't have to interrupt or be interrupted. About half of the work force shares your wiring, so give other introverts the same consideration.

3. Make room for your thinking. If fast-paced meetings overwhelm your reflective style, get the agenda ahead of time or jot down your thoughts and pass them forward during the meeting to bypass the barrage of verbal popcorn.  

4. Don't apologize or criticize. If you don't want to join the after-work happy hour,  just say that your version of happy hour is unwinding at home – and wish them a good time at the events they enjoy. 

5. Talk personality. Tell your boss and colleagues about your style and how you work best. This shows an investment in your work as well as respect for yourself and how you are wired.  Your workplace may offer personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which provide a common language for discussing different styles (if not, suggest it). Use the opportunity to educate others and to understand those who work differently.

Introverts and extroverts may have different strengths or may approach work in different ways, but neither way is right or wrong. All supervisors (and Helgo points out that introverted bosses particularly are effective at drawing out the ideas and motivation of others) can make an effort to bring out the best in both their introverted and extroverted employees.

Perhaps these tips call for an impromptu, after-hours office party to discuss them further – or else some quiet time alone to reflect on them. You be the judge.

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