Climb Out of Your Shell

Introverts can be strong workplace leaders if they take the proper initiative.

In a world that seems to increasingly favor sizzle over steak, introverts inevitably suffer in the workplace. In many respects, they’re similar to NFL offensive linemen: They quietly go about their business in unassuming, workman-like fashion — unsung heroes that shun the limelight.

Extroverts, on the other hand, are the workplace quarterbacks, grabbing the spotlight and dominating the workplace highlight reels. And along the way, they inadvertently put introverts on the business end of a figurative stiff-arm when it comes to promotions and plum assignments.

So what are introverts supposed to do? Go on feeling powerless and overlooked? Join Introverts Anonymous? (“Hello, my name is Bill, and I’m an introvert.”) Or bust out of the mold by going all extrovert on their colleagues, suddenly becoming the life of the workplace party? None of the above, says Jennifer Kahnweiler, Ph.D., an internationally known speaker and executive coach, and the author of a new book called Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference.

“Introverts often are overlooked, ignored and passed over for promotions,” she says. “But they don’t need to become extroverts to succeed. They just need to understand their strengths.”

For proof, Kahnweiler points to famous introverts such as Bill Gates, Tim Cook, Colin Powell, Warren Buffett and Meryl Streep, to name a few. Moreover, research studies show that introverted leaders deliver better outcomes than extroverts when managing proactive employees.

“It’s encouraging and validating to see that there’s not just one way to lead,” Kahnweiler says. “An introvert can achieve results — be a quiet leader.”

Moreover, introverts bring many talents to the workplace. They tend to be creative and self-aware; excel at research and preparation; enjoy serious, one-on-one interactions that can encourage others and resolve conflicts; and are adept at developing well-thought-out arguments that can skillfully influence others.

Introvert: A definition

It’s generally considered that noted psychologist Carl Jung first made the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” popular in the 1920s. Later, the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Instrument, a personality-assessment test commonly used by large corporations and universities, made the terms an even more permanent part of the socio-psychological lexicon.

But strictly speaking, just because you’re shy doesn’t mean you’re necessarily part of the 40 to 60 percent of the population that considers itself introverted. Kahnweiler says introversion is more of a hard-wired orientation, marked by specific defining characteristics. In short, you’re probably an introvert if you fit this pattern of traits:

  • Crave solitude
  • Work better alone or in small groups
  • Think carefully before speaking
  • Prefer depth over breadth
  • Possess good listening skills
  • Prefer writing over talking (would rather email than talk)
  • Are reserved, calm and low-key
  • Shun attention

Introverts are challenged in ways that extroverts, who dominate the workplace by being better self-promoters, can’t fathom. Kahnweiler categorizes what she calls introverts’ “hard realities” into four main groups:

People exhaustion. Introverts get their energy from within. As such, spending too much time with other people leaves them exhausted — a definite drawback in a workplace that typically expects people to always be “on.”

Negative impression. To unknowing outsiders, introverts may appear bored, angry or depressed, because they don’t often outwardly express emotions.

Underselling. Introverts don’t sell themselves very well because they don’t like attention. “That’s a problem, because nature abhors a vacuum,” Kahnweiler says. “If managers don’t see you or hear from you, they tend to pass you over for opportunities, because you’re not on their radar.”

Work overload. Introverts don’t like conflict, so they don’t often say no. And if they do a good job, they become a go-to person. “But if they don’t communicate with their manager about priorities or cannot say no, they tend to get overloaded,” Kahnweiler says. “On the other hand, everyone knows extroverts are overworked because they’re always telling you how overworked they are.”

Here’s the game plan

Kahnweiler emphasizes that introverts can make meaningful changes and still remain true to themselves. “They need to honor and recognize who they are … then leverage their strengths to make a difference and lead,” she explains.

“To do that, they must first figure out what’s not working for them … decide what they want to get better at, like public speaking, for example,” she continues. “Or participate in meetings. I do a lot of employee coaching and webinars, and I can pretty much guarantee that introverts will ask me how they can do better at meetings.”

After that, Kahnweiler offers the following suggestions to help introverts break out of their shells:

Prepare. If an introvert wants to succeed at handling high-stakes meetings, for instance, they need to think well in advance about what kind of comments they can make or questions they can ask. In other words, get a copy of that agenda for a big meeting well beforehand. And when the opportunity arises to speak, don’t hesitate; it doesn’t get any easier the longer you wait.

“Preparation is a huge sweet spot for introverts because they’re very good at research, as well as foreseeing and anticipating objections,” Kahnweiler notes.

Push. Step out of your comfort zone far enough that it feels uncomfortable, but not too uncomfortable. “When we’re uncomfortable, that’s when we learn,” she says.

Communicate. Because introverts tend to be the wallflowers of the office world — as in out-of-sight, out-of-mind — get proactive about passing on pertinent information to higher-ups and team members, such as updates on a project’s status or even a personal accomplishment. Don’t wait for them to ask — find out what they need and deliver it.

Match medium to message. Since introverts prefer writing to talking, it’s tempting to use email when personal interaction would be more effective. “Texting and email may be great for quick exchanges, but they miss the mark in critical high-touch areas, including developing relationships and delivering difficult news,” Kahnweiler points out.

Practice, practice, practice. Take every opportunity to practice whatever you’re doing to improve weaknesses. “Learning new skills and behaviors may be uncomfortable at first, but with conscious repetition and refinement, you can manage your introversion,” she says.

About the Author

To learn more about Jennifer Kahnweiler, visit


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