It has been only a few months since celebrations were held around the world to mark the 50th anniversary of the first landing of humans on the moon, with Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Shortly after pronouncing those historic words, Armstrong, at the peak of his fame, decided to leave NASA. Unlike many fellow astronauts, he did not swap his spacesuit for a seat in Corporate America or in Congress. Instead, he accepted a teaching position as an Engineering professor at university. Whilst we will never know the deep motivations of his choice, it is not unreasonable to think they had something to do with his personality.
Armstrong, the outstanding naval aviator and test pilot, the astronaut whose skill and nerves of steel in the final instants of the lunar mission saved Apollo 11 from becoming the most expensive failure in history, was a reserved, introverted man. Being under a global spotlight and at the heart of a vast, ebullient organisation perhaps proved to be, once the great goal was achieved, too much to bear, or simply pointless.
As an introverted individual navigating a big corporation for a decade, I have more than once related to the experience of not feeling entirely at home. I make a living negotiating complex insurance contracts with dozens of counterparts on behalf of the clients of my company, a big broking firm in London. The pace is fast, the stakes are high, and pressure is always on. The white noise is ubiquitous.
On paper, an environment such as this can appear foreign, if not hostile, to introverts. Introverts often are perceived as “reflective” and “reserved” and tend to do their best work in quiet spaces, enjoying control over their time and interactions. Nonetheless, many of them follow their passion and pursue careers that lead them away from their comfort zones, exposing them to occasions where they find themselves estranged, misunderstood or neglected.
In many such professional contexts, extroverts seem to be, if not numerically predominant, at least culturally prevailing. The behaviours associated with extroverted traits are somehow considered the norm, and as such, expected and rewarded. Is it an uneven playfield for the introverts?
Reflecting on my journey as an employee as well as a manager, I have been trying to understand why, from time to time, certain daily situations represent challenges for me and, as I came to find out, many people with introverted traits. Can those be tackled, or better still, turned into opportunities?
The First Commandment of any introvert, if there ever was one, is, “Think before you speak”, which doesn’t quite agree with the extrovert’s preference for communicating verbally, working out ideas by talking them through, and learning from discussing. Chances are that in meetings you speak less than your extroverted colleagues: you listen, observe and occasionally offer your thoughts. Even your voice tone and body language are different. Unfortunately, this can be misinterpreted as passivity or poor contribution. Moreover, your good ideas might go unexpressed or unnoticed.
My recipe to circumvent the struggle of having to think on my feet for something intelligent to say is to go to my meetings prepared with two or three ideas in my pocket. If you are in a managerial position, you might as well encourage your colleagues to come prepared, especially the ones with introverted traits.
As an introvert, you love the written word too much to not to treat it with the utmost respect, and you have a genuine dislike for casual or inaccurate written communication. You hate getting caught in a cross-fire of short, poorly pondered email chains erupting from your colleague’s iPhones. Instead, you would like to take time for proper responses. But, your electronic silence can be perceived as inactivity or unresponsiveness, particularly when anxiety runs high.
What I find effective, in such situations, is to send back immediately a quick acknowledgement. Then I take the time to prepare what I deem to be a satisfactory answer.
Meetings might not be your forte, but you are comfortable in talking to people one-on-one, where your rich inner world can come across and make an impact. Bring forward your career agenda on your terms by reaching out to and meeting up with your stakeholders individually. Your personal brand, what people will say about you when you have left the room, will benefit.
The open floor where I work hosts some 200 people. Always noisy, always busy, it can be constructed as an unfriendly space for an introvert. Spaces like this inevitably take a heavier toll on you than they do on your extroverted colleagues; therefore, you should take appropriate measures to protect yourself. One way is to make the most of the agile working options available these days. I sometimes come in very early, or I stay late when the office is empty and quiet. I love having the office to myself, and I feel at ease and productive.
Team and Managers
There is a lot going on inside your head, but you show only the tip of the iceberg. You are selective in what you share with the external world. Unsurprisingly, extroverts often struggle to “decode” your language.
It is important to educate your key stakeholders, such as your immediate team and management, on how you operate. Letting them know, for instance, that “If I look quiet, it is probably because I am trying to think of a good answer. Please, bear with me”, or, “I need some quiet time to focus” might sound trivial, but that candour can help to forge better, more trusting relationships with your close entourage.
Social life demands
From client visits to networking events, your social agenda can be extensive. The popular chap, the gregarious, personable extrovert colleague has an edge on you here. If anything, because as much as you enjoy being sociable from time to time, you probably find it exhausting, or soon boring. Expecting introverts to be “people people” is perhaps a bridge too far. However, it is important to be liked by those who choose to do business with you.
Don’t be discouraged. If you show genuine interest and appreciation about something important to people, they are likely to like you back, and you have won them over. And don’t forget to enjoy the social situations in the ways more congenial to you, like by exercising your spirit of observation or engaging in deeper individual conversations.
Public speaking can be daunting, and not just to introverts. Ancient Roman politician Cato Maior’s formula to master it was “rem tene, verba sequentur”, which can loosely be translated to, “if you just know your stuff well, the words will follow”. True, but only in part. Once again, thorough preparation is the key ingredient, but luckily, it is available to everyone. Practice tirelessly, record yourself, go through the opening and closing remarks in detail, including the jokes.
Well-prepared public speaking can be for introverts a helpful catalyst to overcome the ever-present danger of “invisibility” and gain positive exposure. And from presenting the team financial results to delivering the farewell speech at a colleague leaving, the opportunities in corporate life are abundant.
Those are just small steps: perhaps they will not take an introvert to the moon, but hopefully they can be a little help to leap confidently towards a more aware, rewarding and enjoyable experience in large organisations.