Jennifer Kahnweiler, Ph.D., is the author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength and the founder of AboutYOU, a career and leadership consulting company. Smartbrief recently asked Kahnweiler questions about the challenges and advantages of being an introvert. An edited version of her responses follows.

Why do introverts often get overlooked in the workplace?

According to my research—a two-and-a-half-year national study— introverts are routinely ignored, overlooked and misunderstood at work. The good news? When introverts confront their key challenges, they can learn to manage them. The top three:

  1. Project overload. Introverts tend to have difficulty saying no and find it equally hard to ask for help or direction. As a result, they frequently feel overloaded with projects and deadlines—hurting their on-the-job performance.
  2. Underselling. Introverts typically stay mum about their accomplishments—seeming to abide by the old Southern adage, “Don’t brag on yourself.” Yet today careers are made or broken by what others know about a person’s skills and potential. Introverts, therefore, regularly miss out simply because they don’t sell themselves.
  3. Failure to “play the game.” Introverts inherently retreat from office politics. Sure, politics can be nasty, but much of the game is natural and necessary, particularly for building relationships up and down an organization. Introverts, with their desire to be low-key, often fail to sniff out important politicking opportunities and wind up watching their extroverted colleagues get ahead.

What are some ways that an introvert can leverage his or her disposition?

Entertainer Victor Borge said, “A smile is the shortest distance between two people.” As an introvert, you can overcome perceptions of being standoffish or too serious by smiling, laughing, and letting your humor come out. Also, ask great questions (being an introvert, you already know how to listen and learn from the answers), use your depth to help engage and connect with people, and show your smarts by contributing earlier in meetings and conference calls.

How can social networks help an introverted person?

Social networking Web sites let your fingers do the talking—allowing you to communicate with people how you want to, when you want to. You can prepare for first-time meetings, send helpful “news you can use” items, and warm up cold leads—all in a low-key, yet friendly way. You can also create an online “brand” that has a wide reach.

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24 responses to “How introverts can excel in the workplace”

  1. Sam, this is a great post. I refer to these employees as Avoiders: Quiet and reserved, Avoiders are the wallflowers of the world. They create warm, cozy nest-like environments and prefer to work alone. They fear taking initiative, and shun increased responsibility because of the attendant visibility and accountability. They'll do precisely what they're told – no more, it's true, but no less either. Avoiders will sacrifice money, position, growth and new opportunities for the safety of status quo.
    Motivating the Avoider requires that you always provide detailed instructions, in which the Avoider will find safety, and don't expect to be successful in pushing this fear-based individual toward increased responsibility. Value and validate your Avoider for their reliability, for their meticulous attention to your instructions, and for getting the job done right the first time, every time.

    • Fear-based avoiders who take no initiative? Such a gross negative generalization of introverts is ridiculous and just plain inaccurate. I could easily be described as reserved, but I go above and beyond to take on new challenges and fight, rather than revel in, the status quo. The difference is, I don't run around telling everybody what all I do because I seek neither attention nor approval. That hurts me in the workplace, and it hurts me in interviews because I hate talking about myself.

      The notion that anyone who is quiet shuns responsibility and accountability brings to mind an old quote, "He who speaks loudest knows least." But that would be lumping all extroverts into the same category, and I can at least recognize that a few ignorant loudmouths don't make every talkative person a moron.

    • David H says:

      Wow. I am clearly an "I" and you have not described me at all. The three things listed on this blog describe me very accurately in that I hate office politics, "blowing my own horn" , and the inability of saying no. I prefer to work alone and do not like to ask fo help. I have however, been in leadership positions most of my career(s) – I have retired once. I welcome responsibility (remember I can't say no) and go the extra mile. I am also proactive in my job and seek out new things and new growth and have grown the units while I was in charge. While the MBTI is a wonderful tool, it is just that; a tool. We should all be careful not to use the typology as a mold that everyone has to fit in; but more of type indicator- I think that is what the last two letters stand for…

  2. Scott Asai says:

    Even though we hate to admit it, whether you're a extro or intro you do have to "participate" in the game and not sit on the sidelines. It's about giving people a reason to look at you, otherwise they won't!

  3. Chris Tadda says:

    I'm a clear extrovert but I share these same challenges. Are these really a function of someone's preference for introversion or is it more related to their level of assertiveness in workplace situations? I don't think the two are necessarily linked and if they are there is a lot more to consider than E vs. I preferences. MBTI explains quite a bit about our personalities but not everything.

  4. jeffcopus says:

    I'm not often moved to comment on posts, but for some reason this one affected me. First off, I'm an E, and while I agree with much of the article, I believe that strong organizations capitalize on the strengths of their employees (e or i). I don't think that introverts need to "play the game" I think that leadership should equalize the game. While that might sound a bit like a utopia, the bottom line is that organizations are missing out, if they don't take time to engage and listen to those softer voices. I guess that's what hit me with this post because it assumes the responsibility is on the introvert in this leadership blog.

    On the flipside, most people don't work for such organizations, and identifying your weakness and playing up your strengths is something everyone should do, whether introvert or extrovert.

    • Jeff – I am glad you took the time to comment. The corporate landscape is slowly changing and recognizing the assets introverted pros bring forth. I think it is fine to go for a "utopia." especially having a vision where all our unique strengths are capitalized.
      My suggestions come from years of coaching and training introverted types who ask me for tools, in order to flex to their extroverted cultures. My contention is that it is sometimes small changes in behavior that shape perceptions; and that is both on the I and E sides of the table.

    • Richard T. says:

      Great points. Sometimes it seems like introverts get advice that can boiled down to "stop being so introverted" and can easily be heard as, "stop being yourself." So, introverts need to stay introverted, but learn how to use their natural ability, whatever it is. If they are good at office politics (many actually are, despite their quiet demeanor) then they should "play the game." It doubtful that they need much encouragement to do so. Being one's real self is the ultimate strength.

      • You hit the nail on the head with how the advice comes across; it's the equivalent of demanding that the talkative people all shut up. You can be the best version of yourself, but you just can't change your personality. The idea that only the monopolizing voices have something of value to contribute is a sore mistake on the part of leadership. If the people in charge don't reign in some of the strong personalities, they can easily lose out on the talents of quieter team members.

        There are people who talk for the sake of talking, and others who talk because they have something to say. It's confusing that a person's ability to fill up the silence renders them some sort of genius in our society; it doesn't so much matter what you say, so long as you're saying something.

  5. When coaching family/friends with " I" challenges, these observations will come in handy. All personalities have to learn how to best adapt to their environments and adopt cultural norms.

  6. mrsmoti says:

    Interesting post. One of the top challenges facing all of us today is filtering of information. I think this may favour the introvert brain: it is practised and accomplished in creating order, structure and prioritizing – and less likely to dash off on to many tangents on twitter. Data on I and E preferences amongst business leaders shows slightly more Is. Not surprising given this strategic thinking advantage!

  7. Playing the game is important in every situation…however, you must use caution and understand that the game is just that…a game. If played well, you will win many times, but not always. Sometimes lady luck will find a winner who just plays average or even poorly. Dont' take the game too seriously or you will replace your true self with the mask worn to work each day and fail to see that there is so much more to life…work is just a vechile to take you to that.

  8. Good point, techsan. I have found that communication between ee's and managers needs to be consistent; especially one on one meetings. Too often, as you say, the natural flow of feedback, status updates and changes doesn't happen. Introverted leaders have told me that when they take the initiative in sharing information and don't wait to be asked for updates they increase their credibility.

  9. 1, 2, 3, bing-bang-boom! All 3 ring dead-on for me. I despise "the game." When I first entered school systems, I failed to realize I even WAS playing a game; later I realized that you're always playing, whether you want to or not. And then I quit the game. The very idea of re-entry, of the energy I would have to conjure to successfully fake my way through the game again, literally makes me sick with anxiety.

    It's not an introvert's world, and nobody else is going to change to make it easier on us. Yeah, it would be awesome if the higher ups ranked employees on their job performance instead of personality, but instead the natural salespeople who run their mouths the best are showered with rewards, because they're bubbly or fun or likable. Their work might be crap, but who cares.

    Maybe some introverts attempt to play the game by building strong relationships in a genuine fashion, whereas other personality types may excel in strategically building their network in a manipulative fashion to get ahead? Such a turnoff for introverts. Then there are others who simply don't care whether anybody likes them or not.

    • Robert says:

      Please take a chill pill! Stop worrying about the "world" being Extraverted or Introverted, understand who you are, what you like and dislike and stop thinking that us "natural salespeople" RUN our mouths and are showered with rewards. It seems to me your displeasure is with those in management or "higher ups" and not with an extravert who may be very good at his or her job. If you think sales are easy because all it takes is a big mouth you're wrong! Successful salespeople know when to listen, offer solutions to client problems and close deals. Do they get rewards? Of course they do, it pays the bills and supports their family. After 40 years of being an extraverted sales professional let me say that some of the most successful sales people I’ve competed against are Introverts and have risen to the CEO level and they know how to work with personalities of all kinds.
      Come down off the ledge and enjoy life, you only get one shot at it.

  10. […] learn more about how to excel in the workplace as an introvert click here and read an article by Sam […]

  11. Nice article, but I don’t entirely agree with the part about social networks. Some introverted people may be interested in using these networks the way most extroverted people do, revealing a lot about what they are doing and thinking. But I think many will want to hold back from this “talking” behavior. I think introverted people will tend to use social networks for “listening”–that is, as research tools. The one example of listening that you mentioned, and it was a good one, was finding out about people before a first-time meeting. Postings and profile entries on a social network site can reveal the talker’s interests and thus provide the introverted listener with fodder for small talk or ice-breaking topics of conversation.

  12. ibrowej says:

    Being an introvert myself, I could really relate to your article. Naturally also, I would prefer to go to the dentist rather than have to interact in a room full of strange people. It's not that I'm afraid, I just have my mind made up to be uncomfortable. I believe this type of hang-up requires a lot of practice in creating positive networking experiences. I did find some free informational tools that could be of help. Take a look at:

  13. […] How Can Introverts Excel in the Workplace? var addthis_product = 'wpp-260'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true};I was pleased to participate in a q & a session with Associate Editor Sam Taute of the SmartBlog on Leadership.  What are the challenges and advantages of being an introvert in the workplace? Why do introverts get overlooked? What are some of the ways introverts can leverage their disposition? Read about it here: How Can Introverts Excel in the Workplace? […]

  14. Moe says:

    Enough with the "brand" stuff. Nobody aspires to be a brand.

  15. Introverted female says:

    I must say one thing about the article that is definitely true is the part about the office politics. I hate office politics, it's distasteful, impolite and annoying ..why, why must we have to act like an animal licking up crumbs on the floor to get a pay check when we're already working hard, why can't work be about work. It's bad enough that we spend so much of our life at work with little break before we die. Why do we have to lower our ethics or suffer at the hand of office bullies flushing our heads in a hypothetical toilet everyday I hate office politic. I just wish I could find a job were you could just work and go home without the brown nosing, gossip, popularity high school crap. But unfortunately it's reality, I just can't do it, arrrr and as a result I'm always getting wedge's and my head flushed down the hypothetical toilet. Bullies and harassment follows me in almost every job, and ironically I'm working harder than the bullies and the brown nosers only I'm not the one with the respect or the one with any pleasure in the job. Oh and the laughing and smiling thing is bull crap, if you are female smiling only attracts more lazy, do my homework for me people and no one takes you seriously if you smile/female. I think if you're introverted you should start your own business, that's a real solution.

    • jennifer says:

      ditto on your post…in the business world introverted females are often in no win situations…if you work hard focus and dont get in with the boy click then you are too intense, too serious and nobody will hang with you. If you laugh and smile it just feeds their already huge egos. Its about them at that point, NOT YOU, and it still gets YOU NOWHERE. As an attractive petite very well educated introvert I feel soooo alone very often at the workplace. People seem to see you thru the weirdest glasses. Some are itimidated, big women dont like you, guys think you are too intense blah blah blah…if you havent been thru this its almost impossible for us to try and explain it.

  16. […] How Introverts Can Excel in the Workplace Taute, S. The Smart Blog on Leadership, 4/4/11. […]

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