No size fits all: Getting the best out of introverts

Google's chief executive Larry Page has been described as an introvert: the anti-Steve Jobs
Shyer staff have different needs, so cut down on background noise.
There’s a problem with using stereotypes like “introvert” and “extrovert” to inform office policy. Setting aside whether or not these broad terms actually apply to all staff, how many other employee caricatures should be actively catered for? Do alpha males and females require attention in their own right? If so, surely we should also pay attention to the myriad other personality types spewed out by post-Jungian psychology – “extroverted intuitive”, anyone?
But there’s a growing body of writers arguing that businesses are simply failing to get the best out of their less gregarious staff, and it could be affecting the bottom line. Susan Cain (author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) says that “our most important institutions — our schools and our workplaces — are designed mostly for extroverts, and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation.” Research by office designer Steelcase, meanwhile, found that between 30 and 50 per cent of staff are likely to be introverts, but that open plan offices could be damaging their productivity. Here’s how businesses could get more out of their introverted employees.
Cain cites a 1984 study by psychologist Russell Geen, which found that introverted people performed much better at solving a mathematical problem when ambient noise was lower. The opposite was true for extroverts. This brings the open plan office into question: “Introverts really feel at their most alive, at their most energised, when they’re in quieter, lower key environments.” Cain has been working with Steelcase on a range of Susan Cain Quiet Spaces units, aiming to provide some sound-proofed respite. It sounds ridiculous (and expensive), but the theory is that by clambering into a quiet, dedicated workspace, introverts can boost their productivity.
Group projects are unavoidable in some cases, but Cain is resistant to the idea that creativity and new ideas are born exclusively out of collaboration. “Many of the most spectacularly creative people go off by themselves and cultivate solitude, because they know that it’s a key lifeblood for them.” She names Pablo Picasso and Dr Seuss as examples. The obsession with group work can be particularly detrimental to introverts, she says. By definition, they’re inward-focused, and typically work best when thinking through a problem in relative isolation.
Finally, Lisa Petrilli of consultancy C-Level Strategies argues that introverts require a different approach to networking. It’s a cause Cain is also behind – she once described socialising at Harvard Business School as an “extreme sport”. According to Petrilli, a self-confessed introvert, one strategy is to encourage longer, one-on-one conversations at networking sessions. “I recognised that one-on-one conversations would be my lifeline during networking.” As networking is “non-negotiable” in business, introverts must be on a level playing field, she says.

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