How to keep introverts at the heart of workplace conversations
Consultancy 7th February 2023
Conversations are the lifeblood of organisations. They are the heart of a high-performance workplace made up of engaged and committed people, a thriving culture where communications are open and smooth; unblocked by reticence and insecurity.
But there’s an issue of inclusion and equality around workplace conversations, whether that’s in face-to-face meetings, online video calls or social events, that’s still rarely addressed. And it doesn’t matter how much effort HR and management put into policies and practices around internal comms when there are basic misunderstandings about what makes employees tick.
Introverts, traditionally, have been pigeonholed as flawed employees: shy, quiet, unenthusiastic. Not good team players. Workplaces, instead, have been built around the value of the extrovert: open plan offices, a celebration of noise and bustle, meetings and team socials. Conversations can often be dominated by a small number of extrovert personalities and voices. Meanwhile, the introverts feel sidelined, unable to contribute to conversations or give much of their real selves at work — limiting many people and their potential careers; creating negative feelings, tensions and even grievances.
Rather than the result of ‘weakness’, neuroscience suggests introverts are just hardwired differently. Extroverts need more of the brain chemical dopamine to feel energised; introverts need less. So constant, competing sources of noise and demands for attention becomes stressful and tiring for an introvert — but that sensitivity also means they tend to be insightful thinkers and good listeners; empathetic, focused and conscientious. Research suggests that not only do introverts constitute a valuable source of talent for employers, but are also more likely to reach senior levels.
The Covid-19 pandemic was an opportunity for employers to see what they might have been missing out on. The sudden switch to a different work environment, with people mostly working from home, more emphasis on virtual comms, more time and space and fewer distractions, meant introverts stood out in terms of their resilience and contribution.
A good conversations culture in a workplace should be founded on skills and maturity — not people who talk a lot.
In practice, that means:
- Accepting the difference between extroverts and introverts isn’t a case of good versus bad; both have their own kinds of strengths and weaknesses. A diverse range of types is going to be good both for everyday workplace operations and for a culture that appeals to existing and new recruits.
- Not judging employees solely by their ability to show what have traditionally been seen as extrovert characteristics: like a willingness to give presentations; to take a lead in meetings; to be at the centre of team and social events.
- Building real conversation skills in the workforce, and among leaders and managers in particular; the ‘Conversational Integrity’ (CI) that leads to good listening skills, curiosity, empathy, self-awareness — and so an ability to have more inclusive conversations and team working.
- Making sure there are a variety of options for how conversations take place; introverts might prefer the chance to talk one-to-one or in a small group rather than just large group discussions, for example.
- Not stigmatising staff who don’t want to be sociable all of the time. Someone who spends their lunch break alone or who leaves staff parties early isn’t necessarily being anti-social but is just looking forward to having time to themselves to wind down and re-charge.
- Allowing time and space for contributions from different people. Introverts usually prefer to have time to process information and form ideas rather than give instant, top-of-mind responses or need to compete for attention and to be heard.
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