The loudest and most sociable person in the room often gets the most attention, and — whether deserved or not — more opportunities for upward mobility. In her bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain identifies this as a long-standing cultural bias for the “extrovert ideal.”
According to Cain, our one-size-fits-all-world maximizes the potential of extroverts over introverts — giving the former a leg up in career advancement, and, as research in Applied Psychology indicates, more money and better performance evaluations.
Considering that 52% of Americans describe themselves as introverts, that puts a substantial portion of the workforce at a disadvantage. Introverts who see their extroverted colleagues rise up the corporate ladder may try to act more extroverted than they feel, but the long-term effects of disguising one’s authentic self and values are burnout and exhaustion.
On top of that, biases hurt businesses by stifling potential talent, reducing employee engagement, and increasing attrition.
So, how can leaders maximize the workplace and support the success of all employees on the roster? To that end, we must first understand how to empower introverts to be the (quiet) rock stars they really are.
Here are four things to keep in mind about the quiet(er) employees on your team.
1. Quiet doesn’t mean incompetent.
One reason quiet employees get overlooked is a misunderstanding of what it means to be introverted. Prior to research like Cain’s shedding light on the science behind the personality style, even introverts themselves assumed they were simply shy or socially awkward — lacking the “it” factor of their celebrated extroverted peers.
In reality, being introverted has nothing to do with shyness, social anxiety, or a lack of ability (any personality type can suffer from these things). It’s more about an individual’s response to environmental cues.
Introverts are more sensitive to stimulation and noise, and therefore work best when stimuli are minimal. This also means introverts need more downtime to recharge mentally and emotionally, which can sometimes get them labeled as “asocial” and even unfriendly, especially when compared to the extrovert ideal.
This is yet another critical issue in DEI. For example, Black women are often stereotyped as loud, overconfident, and extroverted. Result: introverted Black women may be viewed as hostile and uncooperative, stalling their career momentum. Whether they are perceived as “too much” or “not enough,” Black women have an extra barrier to combat in the workplace that cannot be appropriately addressed without examining these broader biases around personality types.
Pro-tip: think of each employee as uniquely equipped with their own set of powers and skills. That could be the power of charisma… or it could be the power of thoughtful contemplation. Whatever it is, work with it rather than against it and you’ll inspire new levels of performance across the org.
2. Introverts have great ideas (they may not be telling you).
It’s easy to misread quiet employees as lacking drive and ambition. On the contrary, introverts make exceptional entrepreneurs — or, if properly supported, intrapreneurs. They are often ambitious, careful thinkers who get energized by working through interesting problems in their heads.
Worth noting: while extroverts work through problems out loud and react more quickly, introverts will typically spend more time reflecting and thinking, which can mitigate risk. When introverts make a move, it’s because they really believe in what they are doing.
Be proactive in creating space for your quiet employees to contribute, or they may adapt to keep ideas to themselves — especially if other people routinely dominate the conversation. It’s only when we start to listen to each other that real learning, exploring, and innovating can happen. More listening = more space for new voices to join the conversation.
Pro-tip: take the time to meet one-on-one with quiet employees outside of large group settings to gather their insights, build rapport, and let them know you value their ideas.
3. Collaboration can crush innovation.
Collaboration certainly inspires innovation. The problem is: groups are seen as the only way to collaborate to that end.
Bearing in mind the pervasiveness of the extrovert ideal… it makes sense when businesses prioritize collaboration over solo work as the gold standard for creativity — and then reward the employees who consistently thrive in collaborative environments.
In an article for LinkedIn, Susan Cain warns us of relying too heavily on collaboration and teamwork:
“It insists that creativity and intellectual achievement come from a gregarious place.”
She points to Steve Wozniak as someone who craved isolation to work effectively — and he’s hardly a one-off example.
Collaboration for the sake of collaboration can limit the innovative potential of introverts. This doesn’t mean introverts can’t shine on a team, but they are more likely to shine brighter if they also have time to work alone. Bonus: solo work with no distractions can also inspire more workplace grit (for any personality type).
4. Quiet employees make exceptional leaders.
Introverts are often victims of our perception of what success should look like.
In a talk for Google, Cain notes that extroverted students are often described by teachers as better students, even though introverted students consistently make better grades. This carries into adulthood when extroverts snag the most leadership positions, despite research from organizational psychologist Adam Grant that introverts are equally capable leaders.
Grant also argues that introverts may actually be the ideal leaders for addressing the needs of the post-pandemic workplace — needs like DEI, well-being, and employee engagement. Introverts are commonly excellent listeners, willingly seek feedback, and invest in quality relationships. They also inspire psychological safety in the workplace because they are not threatened by alternative perspectives or feel the need to push their own agenda.
Bottom line: take note of your quieter employees. With the right approach, you can elevate their potential and the workplace.
Want to make a real difference for the quiet employees at your company? Check out these additional resources on designing a workplace culture that values all personality types, backgrounds, and leadership styles….
Why Your Workplace Empathy Efforts Are Failing
Is the Paper Ceiling Hurting Your Company’s DEI?
The Problem with “High Potentials” Development Programs