Episode 68: Introverts at the Office

Men have had the advantage to some degree of having that strong silent type, that label that is sometimes valued or seen as an attractive feature. And a quiet woman is automatically assumed to be shy.
— Beth Buelow

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show…

 “Although extroversion wasn’t required to be good at the job, it was certainly something that was really strongly valued."

Introverts can feel awkward in the modern workplace – and judged. Perhaps women more so than men…

“So I think a quiet man it’s oh, he’s thinking, or he’s introspective, or he’s deep, a quiet women is shy or afraid…or you’re not confident, you need to have more confidence in yourself.”

Coming up – introverts at the office. How to survive in an extrovert world and when to accept you just don’t fit in.

Beth Buelow lives in Tacoma, Washington. She’s a coach and a writer who works with introverts – particularly people who work for themselves. I discovered her though her podcast, The Introvert Entrepreneur. She’s also the author of a new book called The Introvert Entrepreneur: Amplify Your Strengths and Create Success on Your Own Terms. 

But this whole introvert-for-a-living thing – it didn’t start till later in life. She’s a classically trained musician and for years she worked in the arts and for non-profits. Before that, she was just a little girl who enjoyed her own company….

“I think I always knew that I was not as outgoing, not as social as other kids but like other introverts I just thought I was shy. And that is often the label that adults will put on you when they see that you're not naturally reaching out to lots of people. They'll say oh, she's just shy.”

Frankly when I discovered music in the 6th grade, you know someone put a clarinet in my hands, and that became my identity. I was able to, I don't want to say hide behind it because it was actually what helped me come out of my shell.”

As she grew up Beth became more and more interested in personality tests. She soon identified as an introvert – but she found out an introvert wasn’t a shy person – although they could be. And Beth says this is what a lot of people still get wrong. Introversion and extroversion aren’t about shyness versus a big personality. They have to do with where you get your energy. An extrovert tends to get their energy from other people – from the outside world. All that socializing keeps them going. An introvert gains energy from having plenty of alone time and being in less stimulating environments. Being surrounded by yakking colleagues can drain an introvert pretty quickly.

I took a test on Beth’s site and my suspicions were confirmed – I was deemed an ambivert. 

“Aha. An ambivert is somebody who falls in the middle, and there's a lot more coming out as the introvert conversation has heated up that says most people are ambiverts. It makes sense because the introvert/extrovert categories exist on a spectrum.”

I can’t stand working alone for more than a day or so. I need that energy that comes from other people. On the other hand, I feel overwhelmed in large groups. I’ll completely clam up. I’m much more comfortable one on one or with just a few people.

And of course anyone can be an introvert or an extrovert. But I wanted to know whether Beth thought there were any differences between men’s and women’s experiences…and also in how colleagues see them…

“I think men have had the advantage to some degree of having that strong silent type, that label that is sometimes valued or seen as an attractive feature. And a quiet woman is automatically assumed to be shy. A quiet man, it’s like, oh, he's thinking, or he's introspective, or he's deep. A quiet woman is shy or afraid or mousy, you're not outspoken enough, you're not confident, you need to have more confidence in yourself. So I think that they interpret the silence, or the quieter nature, or however your introverted presence is showing up, they're seeing it more as a negative."

She wonders if that affects how bosses view these women’s futures…

“Perhaps they are especially attuned to OK, you’re a potential leader but you’re kind of quiet so you need to speak up.”

She says those women may not be advancing as fast as they might otherwise. Now she says this is just a theory. Maybe some of you have promoted more introverted women to senior roles…or maybe you’re a quieter type who feels you’ve lost out because your bosses wanted a more outgoing character. Or perhaps you’ve faked it to meet a manager’s expectations.   

And we’ll come back to that idea of women speaking up – or not – later in the show.

Now not every workplace is hell bent on recruiting extroverts – but the average American workplace at least seems to love them.

“And you see it in everything from job postings, they'll say "we're looking for friendly, outgoing sales reps" or customer service or there was even a job posting for dental hygienists and it said "no introverts". The ad blatantly said, "no introverts".

So it was like, really? Do you understand what an introvert is? So the bias shows up even at that level. And lots of workplaces will say, "we work hard and we play hard" and "we're a family" and "we love going to happy hours together" and all this, so there is this workplace culture that has this extrovert expectation, and it becomes compounded when you have a trend toward open office plans. No one has an office anymore, no one has a door, and you have to sign out space if you want some privacy, and those sorts of things are very energetically taxing to a lot of people, especially the introvert, who will be able to better focus, and think, and be creative, if they've got space, more quiet than noise.”

Open plan offices don’t bother me. But some of us with introvert tendencies dread another aspect of office life…

AM-T: “I mean I can’t think of anything worse than going on a bonding activity – so many companies do this. My brother’s company in London does this – it has retreats. My heart just sinks thinking about those things.”

“I've taken to calling those things forced fun, in some cases. I remember when I worked at a large non-profit, if it was your birthday everyone had to gather in the conference room and sing and ate cake, and I just got to the point where I just would take the day off. I thought, I don't want the forced fun. I look at that now, and this is where introverts need to be aware and sensitive, I think you know, maybe the gathering, and this also goes if you are exiting a place, and you know people say, we want to take you out for happy hour or we want to have a little party, or something like that. And a lot of us would say, "mmm, no, that's OK, I don't want people to make a big deal." But sometimes those rituals are there as much for the other people as they are for you.

And I thought if I'm always saying, "no, don't do anything," or I'm disappearing on my birthday, it's kind of making an assumption that it's forced fun and it doesn't give other people a chance to acknowledge and even celebrate whatever it is that I bring to the table.”

OK, I can buy into that idea. But what about those outside-the-office marathons otherwise known as conferences? They’re tailor made for extroverts.

AM-T: “I don’t go to that many but whenever I do I’m spent by the end of the two or three days. And I need to go back to the hotel room and not attend all the schmoozing events. But I feel bad, I feel guilty, because I’ve been fed this idea that the whole point of me being at the conference is to network and meet all these people. But it’s just too much.”

“Yes, and I think it's just you can't have too much of a good thing, and for me my networking and my visibility and my learning is happening during those sessions. And I guess I've stopped feeling guilty about doing those other things because I think this is my experience. I paid to be here and I am and if I'm going to get the most out of it, if I’m going to get what I came for, then I need to take care of myself.”

And when it comes to networking in general…she says she’s stopped pretending to be an extrovert for the evening…

“Because I think when we're trying to imitate other people and we're saying, "oh she's got it down," and "she's better at that than I am, so I need to be like her" that is not trusting that who I am is enough. So at one point, it was another one of those kind of lightbulb moments when I said, "wait a minute, I'm trying to be like this other extroverted person, and I'm not and it doesn't feel good!" and so "what strengths do I naturally have that I can bring to the table?" That I'm comfortable smiling at people and making eye contact, that I'm a really good listener, that I can ask really good questions. And that allowed me to be able to connect with people in an authentic way, not feel like I was faking it, and basically set myself up for better success.”

She no longer dreads a roomful of strangers.

Lisa Sonnier describes herself as a reformed introvert. She says as a kid she spent a lot of time alone out of choice. But as she grew up she realized she was pretty lonely. She started making a concerted effort to be more social. Today she works in the water department of a big city in Texas. But even though she says she’s now the life of the party, her inner introvert is still there…

“Part of my job is constantly talking to people, staff or superiors, on a public service front, council members and citizens. I feel like I have to be able to solve all their problems and think about what they're going through and help them out. Then at the end of the day I don't like to talk to anyone, I like to be quiet, having more of my own time. And I only just realized that I was becoming totally burned out, this being on all the time, without giving myself that time to sit and contemplate.”

She says her own experience makes her sympathetic to the introverts in her office. She manages a lot of people with scientific or technical backgrounds. She has an engineering degree herself. And she tries to adapt her management style for the less outgoing personalities…  

“I try to be quiet, I try to listen and let them come out with what they’re gonna say at their own pace, which is difficult, I like to chime in and say I know where we're going with this. Let them say what they want to say. Some of this is knowing some people don't always speak up. So when certain people go on and on at a meeting, I try to seek out the people who have been quiet and ask them directly for their opinion, especially if they're going to tell me their opinion later, after the meeting, so I try to get them to say it to everyone.

Not to torture them, but so everyone in the room has a chance to know they’re contributing. Especially the ones with the technical knowledge that can really help a project.

“…and sometimes it’s hard to understand those people or to get them to speak up, but they always know what they're talking about so if you can coax it out of them that information is gold, but yeah, they don't always make it top of the charisma pile -- so they're not always in leadership positions, but usually they know which way the boat should go.”

And we’re back to that idea that the most charismatic people – and people who speak up in meetings – they’re the ones who get promoted, even if they’re contributing plenty, quietly, in their daily work.

Frieda Klotz has been that quiet contributor. Frieda lives in Belgium now, but she and I met a few years ago in New York. She’s Irish, and she’d been living in New York for several years. She’s a writer and editor and a couple of years ago she landed her first permanent, non-freelance American job. She was still quite new when she realized there were certain expectations she wasn’t meeting…

“My role was to do research and also to engage with my colleagues obviously, and sometimes to present to clients. And it was really interesting because in that organization although being extroverted wasn't required to be good at the job, it was certainly something that was really strongly valued, and there were a few different ways that this kind of manifested, and probably the main one I found was we did a Myers Briggs test…"

In case you haven’t come across it, the Myers Briggs test is a personality assessment…

“And it turned out that of the 20 or so people who I worked with 18 of them categorized themselves as extroverts, and the head of our group was a really high on the extrovert scale and then there was one person who was neutral, but with one with one notch into introversion, and then I was actually the only strong introvert within my division in the company. And I was then kind of asked to raise my hand and identify myself, which I thought was very funny, and I felt a little bit as though I was sort of being shamed for being an introvert, because although it was all very touchy feely and everybody was kind of saying, oh, it doesn't matter what you, the reality is it was really clear that our C.E.O. highly valued extroverts just like her.”

Frieda soon learned if she wanted to fit in she had to try harder to bring out another side of herself.

“I would say the culture that I was in was something of a sort of maybe not just an extrovert culture but interrupting was something that was kind of very standard, and I certainly found that people I worked with directly regularly interrupted at meetings and it was almost, if you didn't interrupt there is never going to be an opportunity to speak at all. So I did actually learn how to interrupt.”     

I recently read an interview with former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. She was urging women to learn how to interrupt at work, or they’d risk never being heard or having their views considered.

“It is kind of liberating when you start to interrupt people and nothing bad happens. I think I was brought up with the idea that if you interrupt it’s terribly rude and you kind of shouldn't do it. But the reality is when you do and just keep speaking everything is fine.”

So acquiring that new skill was a plus. But she kept on feeling out of place. Especially when the personal critiques began…

“I was told that I needed to cut my bangs because people, the manager actually commented that I was probably hiding behind my bangs which wasn't true actually, but she said I know you're probably hiding behind your bangs because you are timid and we're so assertive here, but really people won't be able to interact with you properly or connect with the you unless they can see your face, and so I recommend that you cut your bangs or put your hair back. And I do understand that people need to see your face to interact with you but  again it was kind of strangely presented as feedback, and a separate colleague told me there were issues with how I sat and with my voice. Again it was somewhat vague – I mean I think the thing about my voice is interesting, I’m not sure it gets back to the idea of being an introvert or not, but this woman said there was something about my voice that was problematic.”

AM-T: "Like what?"

“She never clarified I'm afraid, so I don't know. Maybe it was that I spoke a little bit quietly. I know when I'm nervous my voice can get shaky, which really doesn't help. But yes, the feedback was about whether I was a cultural fit for the organization, and what I found strange was that I had done a two hour interview to get the position and I hadn't really changed dramatically in the three weeks between doing the interview and getting the job, and so it was strange then to be kind of asked to change my style and my voice and these other things in order to fit into what was essentially a research job.”

Maybe there was even a cultural side to this – perhaps some of these managers had a stereotype in mind…

“Typically Irish people are thought to have the gift of the gab and to be chatty and all sorts of other things as well. But, yeah I don't think introversion is widely viewed as being an Irish trait, but having said that I did a little bit of reading and I think the people in northern Europe are considered to be much more introverted, and being in Belgium where I am now I would say the culture is extremely introverted. And I could imagine that somebody who was too extroverted could be kind of looked upon as being you know annoying or overconfident or arrogant.”

In America, it seems there’s no such thing as being too outgoing – and as I told Beth Buelow, perhaps that’s why to me, even the word 'introvert' seems tainted…

AM-T: “Even the word has a slightly negative connotation. That must be from the culture, and the fact that extroversion is what’s admired in this culture. I think that’s why I feel guilty about removing myself in these conference type situations.”

“Yes, you're right that it's so much grounded in what we've been fed culturally about how we are supposed to be especially in social situations, and we become a little suspicious if someone is quiet or if they disappear and don't show up at the afternoon session or they're just squirreling away and talking to a couple of people instead of a bunch of them.

I think it's partly because of this really longstanding misperception of what it means to be an introvert, and people will think an introvert is shy or anti- social. I often joke that people think they're serial killers in waiting because when I first started the Introvert Entrepreneur I set up a Google alert for the work introvert. And almost every email notice that came into my inbox was some sort of story about somebody committing a crime. And the police, the neighbor, the co-worker would use the word introvert, or the reporter would stick it in there, "yeah, you know, the alleged gunman was really quiet, kept to himself, I think he was an introvert." So that word became synonymous with somebody to be a little afraid of or somebody to be a little suspicious of, and so people think, "oh, we've got to fix that" or, you know, introversion is not a good thing, and I do think that we're starting to take the word back and be able to claim it over the past few years. But I also think we have a long way to go.”

Beth is one of several authors these days who’s loudly advocating for introverts. Or maybe not loudly. Maybe assiduously is a better word. Thanks to her and my other two guests for sharing their stories on this episode.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time. As usual I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the show – you can post them in the comments section on the website or on the show’s Facebook page.

And if you’re a fan of the podcast and haven’t done so please consider writing a review on iTunes – it helps The Broad Experience come to other people’s attention. This is a one-woman show without a marketing department of any kind so your help is greatly appreciated. And thanks again to all those of you who’ve donated to the podcast – there are more T-shirts. Check the website for details.  

And finally, thank you to Eliza Sankar-Gordon for her help with this episode.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.