Managing Introverts: How to Foster and Sustain Innovation From the “Quiet” Ones

Guest blog written by Meri Tunison

In a post last September, the blog team explored the ideas of Paul Glen in his book Leading Geeks.  He proposed advantages and tips to learning how to work with programmers.  Of course, this is a particularly important group of people within eLearning companies—thus our natural interest in his ideas!

At the recent ASAE conference (American Society of Association Executives), traditional management strategies and values were yet again challenged by a passionate author.  This time, Susan Cain invited business managers to consider the findings she details in her New York Times bestseller.  Aptly titled Quiet, Cain’s book reveals insights about people who either self-identify or are labeled as introverts.  Most importantly, she offers ideas on how to understand and support introverts in our relationships, in our communities, and in our workplaces.

What is “Quiet” about?

In a world that “can’t stop talking,” according to Cain, it is often difficult for introverts to be recognized as contributing—and essential—members of society.  It is not in their nature to seek the attention and validation that many extroverts crave as motivation—and this often results in introverts being undervalued unfairly.  In Quiet, Cain’s exploration of these qualities and how introverts manifest them is hugely important to understanding how introverts think, relate, and create.  She explores similar ideas in a TED talk, accessible on Cain’s website, as well as shared below.

How are eLearning companies connected?

For eLearning companies, the “introvert” label might be most easily (and sometimes inaccurately) applied to quieter and more individualistic roles– a programmer, perhaps. An accountant.  An IT developer. A graphic artist.

Many introverts may gravitate towards these roles.  However, as Cain proves, introverts can also be found in roles traditionally seen as more favorable to extroverts—high pressure situations on a deadline, speaking and managing large groups of people at once, always on the go-go-go.

The key is providing introverts in your workplace with the right tools to be successful in a variety of situations.  Cain interviews real people who identify as introverts and are extremely successful in leadership positions, sales positions, “people positions”, etc.   It’s all about finding ways to tap into their potential—that is what makes a person successful.

Recommendations for Managing Introverts

Based on the findings and stories in Quiet,[1] here are five tips to managers on how to successfully tap into the innovation of introverts in a 21st century workplace.  Each recommendation includes a brief overview and a specific idea on how to accomplish it.

Here’s a sneak peek:


Use the links below to jump to any section.

  1. Accommodate and Recognize Different Styles of Leadership
  2. Rethink the Process of Collaboration
  3. Change up Your Meeting Format
  4. Modify the Flow of the Physical Workspace
  5. Revise the Work Day Structure
  6. Conclusion and credits for this post

Tip #1

Accommodate and Recognize Different Styles of Leadership

While leadership positions have traditionally been viewed as an extrovert calling, certain qualities of introverts can lend themselves to being a very efficient leader.  Extroverted leaders want to rally and motivate the masses.  To do so, they take on the role of involved energizers. Alternatively, introverted leaders show their management skills through taking on the role of adviser.  They tend to let the employees’ contributions shine and value individual achievements.

Both leadership types have their strengths and weaknesses, and can serve a company in different ways.  A successful company thus sees the potential for leadership by all sorts of personality types, and encourages effective leadership of workers who embody those types.

Tip #2

Rethink the Collaborative Process

It is a mistake to believe that introverts are, by nature, incapable or uninterested in collaboration. On the contrary, introverts can be immensely skilled at collaboration—but typically in a different manner than what most companies expect.  Don’t stop collaborating—just “refine the way” you accomplish it, says Cain.

Similar to cooperative learning techniques used in schools today, meetings can be structured to accommodate and encourage different ways of thinking.  As Cain notes, for introverts, “participation will feel more comfortable when he knows what his contribution is supposed to be.

For example, if a meeting is held to address a particular issue, send an email a day or two in advance of the meeting with the following instructions:

  • Everyone find two Post-its and labels them as Post-It #1 and Post-It #2.
  • Write a seemingly outrageous idea for how to solve the issue on Post-It #1.
  • Find a colleague to share your Post-It #1 with. On the back of the Post-It, write one positive aspect about your idea and one constructive question your colleague has about it.
  • On Post-It #2, write a completely new, plausible solution to the issue that the two of you came up with together.

Already, before the meeting has even happened, individual and one-on-one collaboration has occurred, while providing a lead-in for further group-work that will be done in the meeting.  By posing a few specific questions or tasks that you want the attendees to reflect on prior to attending the meeting, the quality of everyone’s contribution can be seen and appreciated.

Tip #3

Change up Your Meeting Format

Focusing completely on large group brainstorming can be detrimental to the creative process, especially for the introverts attending the meeting who may struggle to make themselves heard.  The collaborative preparation detailed above can assist with this.  Additionally, during the meeting, instead of “all-hands conversational multitasking” in a large group, try a combination of medium-sized brainstorming groups and smaller focus groups.

Extroverts will appreciate the sense of group-think with freewheeling ideas, while introverts will find the smaller setting more conducive to thoughtful and focused sharing.  Additional modifications could include:

  • Switch between these groupings a couple of times throughout the meeting.
  • Give each group clear directions on how to proceed and what to bring back to the larger group.
  • Assign roles like note-taker, reporter, speaker in the focus groups as well.
  • After the meeting, set up a shared space for ideas—a bulletin board full of those Post-its or an online collaborative wiki—can help encourage introverts who may want more time to process the meeting’s information on their own.  Individuals can continue to share their ideas in this way.

Tip #4

Modify the Flow of the Physical Workspace

Innovation sometimes occurs in solitude, other times—in pairs or groups.  Allowing for both types of processes can benefit a company’s creative process.

The physical organization of the workspace can lend itself to providing private space as well as interactive space.   Pixar Animation Studios and Microsoft are examples of how companies deliberately arrange “diverse workspaces” that encourage free-flowing interaction at times and intensely focused solitude at others. When people are better able to choose times spent as an “observer” and times spent as a “social actor” within their environment, the happier employees they are likely to be.

This can be accomplished by encouraging workers to make their private space their own, while also modifying collaborative areas.

  • Allow some decorations and flexibility with furniture or lighting, to increase a sense of ownership and ease.
  • Moveable table and seating arrangements in individual offices as well as meeting rooms allow for smooth transitions from a lecture delivery of information into focused discussion groups.
  • For positions like programmers, provide the option of working remotely from home from time to time. This can increase a sense of independence and responsibility.  Establish guidelines for sharing their work when they return to the office.

Tip #5

Revise the Work Day Structure

It’s important for any worker to feel as though their days do not continually exhaust all of their energy.  All people want to feel energized in their contributions at work, and companies of course want their employees to flourish.  Introverts in particular tend to value periods of “restorative” time in which they can refocus on their own.

Therefore, a balance of interaction and information are both key.  Extroverts tend to gravitate towards moving around the office space, talking information through with coworkers, and constantly being involved in active work with others.  Introverts prefer to settle into a project for longer periods of concentration, receiving information and then having time to process it, and having a fair amount of independence.

If sliding doors and movable walls (a la Microsoft) are not an option to accomplish these goals, there are methods to accommodate different styles of your employees.

One easy strategy for managers to implement is a signal system for work times throughout the day.

  • Each employee could have a way to signal at the door or access point to their personal workspace if they are requesting privacy for focusing on their work for the time being.
  • While a big red “DO NOT ENTER” sign does not encourage a sense of camaraderie in the workplace, a more humorous and respectful sign could be displayed. See above!
  • Generating ideas and feedback from employees about how such a system is set up and operates is also a great way to ensure colleagues are buying into and respecting the expectations.


Challenging Perceptions, Setting an Example

The “Extrovert Ideal,” as Cain calls it, has incorrectly led many people to believe that an extrovert-centric workplace is the only path to success.  That quiet workers are somehow less capable at their jobs, or less invested.  That true productivity must come from multitasking and never-ending collaboration.

Cain painstakingly lays out the argument that different personality or learning styles should not be viewed as one being wrong, inferior, or somehow less capable than the other.  In actuality, we are all “gloriously complex individuals,” and it is in a business’s best interest to encourage understanding of how employees think and create differently.  This includes what they are capable of, what opportunities managers can provide for them to be successful, and how they can contribute to the workplace while still honoring their own personal styles and those of their colleagues.

Who knows?  Perhaps even just reading this blog post will encourage you to examine your own style—maybe you’ll surprise yourself with what you find!

[1] This blog post is not intended to reflect Susan Cain’s specific beliefs on how to manage introverts. Rather, ideas discussed in this post are based on the blog team’s reading of her book, Quiet.  Quotes in italics are taken directly from the book, though their application specifically to a business management sense is paraphrased and adapted from Cain’s original recommendations. 

Managing eLearning is written by the Blog team at Web Courseworks which includes Jon Aleckson and Meri Tunison.  Ideas and concepts are originated and final copy reviewed by Jon Aleckson.