Shut Up and Listen and Other Lessons on How to Manage Introverts


Get Shift Done: Management

When you manage knowledge workers — especially developers and other IT staff — you encounter a lot of introverts. They like to work on their own, prefer quiet and solitude, and enjoy digging into problems.

While some of these folks learn to push past their discomfort, as a rule introverts don’t speak up in meetings, nor do they jump at a chance to present or lead collaboration sessions. They’re often overlooked in favor of more extroverted employees — and that’s risky business.

As Susan Cain writes in her wonderful book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, nearly one-third of the population are introverts. If many of them aren’t contributing — or being given the chance to contribute—to the conversation, then your company is losing out on the ideas and input of a good chunk of its staff.

If your introverted employees are not contributing to the conversation, then your company is losing out on the ideas and input of a good chunk of its staff.

So how do you, as a leader, get your introverts to step up and take part in the conversation?

#1 — Figure Out Who They Are

You might think it’s easy to identify the introverts on your team. After all, they’re the quiet ones. But that way of thinking can be misleading thanks to the two types of “false positives.”

  • Introverts who have learned to push past their discomfort: as mentioned above, there are introverts who have learned to “fit in” to an extroverted business world. They may look like extroverts on the outside, but they they’re introverts through and through.
  • Disgruntled employees: There may be members of your team who are quiet because they’re disgruntled. Often they’re unhappy at work or simply feel that speaking up won’t get them anything but more work. These folks may look like introverts on the outside, but their dissatisfaction can be hiding an extrovert.

So, how do you discover the introverts on your team? Spend time observing your team in groups and day to day.

  • The extroverts will seek out social interactions beyond meetings, and push for collaboration sessions. When they talk about their non-work life, you’ll hear stories of social situations that energized them.
  • As for introverts, keep an eye out for those that seem exhausted after a social gathering, a meeting, a company party. Not ones who don’t participate — that’s not what being introverted is about — more those who seek a break from the group to collect their thoughts, or just decompress. Remember, being anti-social and being introverted are two different things.

In addition, listen to your employee’s preferences in their work environment. Are they excited about the new open floor plan (extrovert), or do you find them in a breakout room even when they don’t have a meeting (introvert)? Take time during your one on ones to ask their opinions on subjects like collaboration spaces, remote work and other situations that indicate where their preferences lie.

#2 — Give them a comfort zone

Introverts live in their own heads, so there are lots of great ideas in there. But they also need time to process and examine those ideas before they bring them out into the light. And, they need to feel comfortable enough to do so.

Once you’ve identified the introverts on your team, you need to help them feel confident when sharing their ideas with you.

Start by sharing meeting agendas and topics before the meeting. This gives them the time to examine what will be discussed and organize their thoughts, making it more likely they will contribute.

Also, don’t make meetings an all or nothing affair. Not all good ideas will come out during the discussion. Make sure everyone has an opportunity to follow up with you after the meeting to express their thoughts as well.

#3 — Don’t scare them off

Now that you’ve made meetings and collaboration sessions a little more comfortable, make sure you don’t undo all that work by trying to get your introverts to be something they aren’t.

Don’t call them out during meetings to showcase their ideas. And don’t go overboard praising them when they do speak up. Those are both guaranteed ways to get them to clam up and never take the risk of speaking up again.

Instead, thank them as you would anyone else, but feel free to pull them aside later and tell them how much you appreciated their contribution. Let them know that what they have to say is important to the success of the team, and that you’re willing to let them say it in whatever way makes them comfortable.

Lastly, if there is another manager in the office who is an introvert — even if it’s yourself— point that out to these team members. Let them know that being introverted doesn’t mean their contributions aren’t valued. Give them the space to contribute, and then let them share all they have to offer.

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