By Andrew Forrester
It can be hard to be an introvert in what feels like an extrovert’s workplace. Here’s how to lean into your gifts and make your mark, without changing who you are.
“We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.”
Susan Cain, American author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
Quick: imagine your company’s ideal employee. What do you see? Someone flashy? Loud? Someone who’s got an X-factor, some je ne sais quoi that sets them apart. The one who’s always ready with a joke or a moving, motivational speech. The star of every meeting and poster child for every company brochure.
Now pause and think of some of the world’s most famous CEOs. Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg and Marissa Mayer. Warren Buffet. Do they match that description? Whatever you think of when you think of Mark Zuckerberg, I’m pretty certain it’s not “life of the party.” He, like Mayer, Buffet and Gates, is an introvert.
These CEOs are of course extraordinary. But why is it that these exemplars of big success seem out of sync with our typical conception of small-scale triumphs in the day-to-day of the office? Why do we tend to applaud extroverted qualities over those we associate with introversion? Perhaps we’ve been thinking about success, and the kinds of people who can achieve it, all wrong. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider what introverts can offer—and that starts with how introverts themselves think. Here are some ways for you to own your introversion and still stand out in the workplace.
Stop With the Comparisons
It can be tempting to observe your team’s more ostentatious members and worry about how you’re measuring up. Sometimes it feels like it’s the people who are the best at schmoozing and small talking who are most likely to be celebrated and promoted. But just because this feels true doesn’t mean it is. It’s cliché to say that everyone has different gifts, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate—and being really energized by socializing does not automatically mean someone is a really good project manager or team leader.
Don’t forget, when you applied for this job, you got it. You were hired not in spite of your introverted tendencies, but because people saw something valuable in you, your skills and your experiences. They weren’t on the lookout for someone to hang out with at happy hour, but rather someone who would get the job done well, and that person ended up being you.
Remember Substance Over Style
You can’t change your personality, nor should be expected to, and the good news is that all the stunning cocktail hour banter in the world can’t make up for a solid product, consistently delivered. The best way to stand out on the job, for anyone, is to produce excellent work, full stop.
You don’t have to be a social butterfly to be well-known and appreciated. Commit to developing a reputation as someone who is helpful and reliable; someone who is an expert in their field; someone who can answer questions and offer guidance, and who knows their way around necessary programs, software and protocols. In doing so, not only will you model an exceptional work ethic and a dedication to excellence, but you’ll also draw others into your orbit simply by virtue of the value you bring each day.
Find Other Avenues for Standing Out
One of the more frustrating parts of not being an extrovert in the workplace is the sense that, if you were just a little—what’s the word? —showier, you might get more recognition. But there are other ways to be a known entity that goes beyond being the company’s most boisterous mover-and-shaker. It’s up to you to discover the right avenues through which you can let your greatness be known, whether that’s with attendance at PDs that fit your disposition (Zoom can be your best friend here!) or the occasional concise, extremely fine-tuned email about your next initiative. Just because you’re doing something from the comfort of your desk doesn’t mean you can’t make some noise about it, too.
Meet on Your Own Terms
Despite generalizations to the contrary, being an introvert does not mean you’re antisocial, but more likely that multiple, sustained interactions tend to drain rather than fuel you. Of course, if there’s one culprit with a monopoly on energy draining in the office, it’s meetings, especially those that are out of your control. Meetings can be exhausting, even for the most extroverted employees, but they can be especially tasking for those of us who value alone time. Rather than letting meeting fatigue catch you off guard, turn the tables.
When you foresee the need to get together to tackle a specific project or initiative (and when you’re able), call the meeting yourself. When you set the meeting, you set the tone, meaning you can telegraph what matters to you: hard start and stop times, a focus on relevant subject matter, equitable speaking time for all participants and so on. It’s wise, also, to become an expert in the standing meeting and to seek out other quick, efficient connection points with your teammates. Being proactive in this one area saves you from being trapped in someone else’s circus, dreaming that you’re at home with a cup of tea and blissful silence. It may even get you back there sooner.
And Sometimes, Fake it Till You Make It (And Then Give Yourself A Nice Break)
Of course, no one can avoid every exhausting encounter. We all have to do things we aren’t entirely comfortable with at work—not weird, boundary-pushing things, but those moments where you think to yourself, “Hmm, don’t love this.” There are times you just have to pretend: an important dinner, a conference, a big presentation. Remind yourself that these occasions are few and far between, and do your best to carve out spaces for yourself in the midst of them, even if it’s just a ten-minute breather in a bathroom or a walk around the parking lot.
When you’re finished, give yourself a real break and do something life-giving. You’ve earned it.
Andrew Forrester is a writer whose work has appeared in Parents Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Andrew also teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Methodist University.
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