The strong, silent type

Workplace teams are dominated by outgoing folks, but introverts make the best leaders.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

When writing about team building for this month’s issue of In Business, I learned about some neat activities local companies and organizations are participating in, only a fraction of which made it into the article.

It also reaffirmed what I’ve long known about myself — teamwork just sounds like a lot of work. Don’t misunderstand; there are obvious benefits to being part of a team and some of them, like a diversity of ideas, I wholeheartedly support. But teamwork doesn’t come naturally to me.

I used to hate being an introvert. I longed to be more outgoing. Over time, I (slowly, painstakingly) managed to become more extroverted in social situations. But not being the quiet awkward guy is also exhausting. In all honesty, some of my happiest days are the ones when I don’t talk to anybody.

Still, I am a part of a team here at IB, and even at my hermitiest I realize the value in collaborating and cooperating with other people. Which is why I recently read with interest a Harvard Business Review piece that notes introverts may actually the best team leaders. Let me explain.

Extroverts are well suited to leadership when their team members are natural followers. In these cases, the extrovert’s natural assertiveness and energy help give the team focus and direction.

However, when team members are themselves proactive and assertive, extroverted leaders are more apt to feel threatened and become less receptive to new ideas. By contrast, an introverted leader is more comfortable accepting new ideas and considering suggestions from the team members below. There’s even a Wharton study that reveals introverts actually make better leaders because of their ability to delegate successfully.

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Of course, despite introverts making up one-third to one-half of the working population by most estimates, it’s extroverts who often rise to the top and dominate leadership roles. Frankly, as introverts we often let them, even when it’s patently obvious they might not be best suited for the position.

So, how can we reverse this trend in the workplace and get more introverts not just involved in but leading workplace teams? I have a couple ideas.

Give introverts their space. Wait, what? Yes, you read that right. Introverts are “persistent, diligent, and focused on work,” Susan Cain, author of the New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts, says. “Give them a difficult problem to solve, and they’ll work harder and longer than extroverts.” Introverts also have “a creative advantage,” because “a crucial part of being creative is being able to go off by yourself and think things through,” she explains.

Allow them to play to their strengths. Networking events may not sound like an introvert’s best friend, but interestingly introverts actually do a better job of making deeper, more meaningful connections. It may just come down to setting realistic expectations for the event. “You don’t need to work the room,” Cain says. “If I have a good conversation with a few people, I consider that a success.”

Further, David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, points to research suggesting effective leadership strategies like mentoring and empowering a team may be more consistent with innately introverted traits. Rather than assuming the introverts on your team aren’t ideal leaders, let them use their own unique style of leadership. You might be surprised at how easily they sow unity among co-workers and colleagues.

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