Helping introverts to break through

Thoughtful, introspective leadership can help in disruptive economic environment
By Bernadette Smith
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/17/2017
pathdoc (Shutterstock)

In a world where we have traditionally revered charismatic extroverted leaders, society has been conditioned to believe this “type” of person is the best style to lead organizations today. This is not always true.

A more thoughtful and introspective leadership style can create conditions that enable an organization to thrive in a disruptive economic environment. It’s time to think differently about enabling hidden introverted talent to break through at an organization.

Introverts in the workplace have been misunderstood and often overlooked for promotion in favour of their more “vocal” colleagues, even though they have proven to be equally as competent and effective. Their quiet temperament may be interpreted as aloof, antisocial and passive. In fact, an introvert’s brain is wired to be stimulated by the internal processing of information to support learning, problem-solving and planning. So, while others are talking, they’re processing their thoughts, connecting the dots and moving toward a productive solution. 

It’s important to recognize the unique strengths introverts bring, and appreciate that they make a significant contribution to an organization, and their leadership style may actually deliver over and above their extroverted counterparts.

Here’s a rundown of the strengths of introverted leaders, and how they can have a positive impact in the workplace:

Thoughtful communicators: They “think first and talk later,” delivering on-point, key messages with substance and credibility.

Excellent listeners: They learn by listening attentively to others. Quiet contemplation enables them to hear things and create valuable insights that they can put into action, while motivating employees by valuing their input.

Deep thinkers: They patiently explore and analyze issues with deep introspection and have an innate ability to create unique solutions to complex problems.

Embrace solitude: They re-energize by spending time alone and focusing on personal pursuits or reflecting on work-related issues. Quiet time enables their best thinking and improves their creativity, problem-solving and quality of communications.

Calm temperament: A calm and confident demeanour in times of crisis provides reassurance and hope to employees.

Make deep connections: A “less is more” approach enables meaningful relationships with a select group of respected people.

Employers need to coach and enable introverts with deep thinking, problem-solving strengths to flex their style by using strategic displays of extroversion when it matters most. In the right combination, this would be an ideal style to tackle today’s leadership challenges.   

These are four strategies that will help introverted professionals to break through in the work environment:

Improve visibility and gain recognition: This should be done for themselves and their teams. Introverts don’t typically seek out the spotlight or promote themselves as others would, so their accomplishments may go unnoticed. Employers need to support them in developing their personal brand so they show up powerfully both inside and outside their organization. 

Introverts have plenty of personal power based on their expert knowledge, but need to strengthen their presence so people take notice. With advanced preparation or practice, they can learn to feel more comfortable speaking up in social settings and in meetings. For example, when attending industry or networking events, having a well-prepared “elevator pitch” and pre-planned small-talk topics will help alleviate feelings of awkwardness in these situations. 

Similarly, in meetings, it might be tough to put forward ideas on the spot without sufficient time for thoughtful consideration. Careful preparation in advance of a meeting will enable ideas to be presented in the moment. Being prepared in social settings will help them boost their confidence in expressing ideas and go a long way in improving presence with key colleagues as well.

Communicate powerfully: This is key to getting noticed. The three “Vs” of communication strategy can be used to engage all modes of communication: visual, vocal and verbal. The impact of non-verbal communication should not be under-estimated. “Visual” relates to gestures, facial expressions, and even environment-specific behaviours such as a person’s sitting position around a boardroom table. Simply put, posture, direct eye contact and a relaxed appearance can demonstrate a level of interest and engagement in the topic being discussed.

Vocal elements, such as volume, pace and a succinct delivery of the message, contribute to improving the impact of the actual content (verbal) that is being delivered. Layer in a little emotion or passion in the delivery and the audience will be hooked for sure.

Build relationships: Building rapport with direct reports or key stakeholders in the workplace will increase understanding of each other’s styles and identify ways to work better together. Identification is a technique that can be used to intentionally gather information about another person, by sharing experiences or asking questions, that allows individuals to connect on similarities that they both have in interests, opinions or practices. 

Another strategy that can be used is mirroring where an individual matches his interactional style to the person he’s communicating with. Words and actions should be similar or complimentary to theirs in terms of vocabulary, sentence structure, body language or tone. 

Social talk will involve flexing an introverted style, but never to the point of inauthenticity. Over time, expressing a genuine interest in other people will improve approachability and create comfortable connections in workplace.

Use energy wisely: This is important for strategic interactions requiring extroverted behaviours. Introverts who flex outside their comfort zone for important workplace interactions will quickly deplete their energy. It’s critical that meetings are scheduled with space in between to re-energize, either through some quiet time or by doing some concentrated work during the day. It’s important for introverts to recharge regularly to do their best work.

In today’s turbulent work environment, a calm, focused, introspective leadership style can be the best choice to create a culture that inspires innovation and performance. Research has shown that these leaders are well-suited to an environment with proactive employees. These leaders listen to their ideas and empower employees to implement creative solutions to tough business issues. Leaders who draw out the best efforts of their teams in this way are in the best position to deliver the strongest performance in the long run.

Bernadette Smith is vice-president of talent development solutions at the Canadian Management Centre in Toronto. She can be reached at (416) 847-6067 or

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