How to Work with an Introvert

I’ve been talking about Networking a lot recently as the topic in My Executive Group this month is Authentic Networking.

One of the questions that came up is, “How can I work more effectively with introverts? I can’t seem to get them to engage.”

As a business leader, but also an introvert myself, I can relate to both sides of this.

Understanding Introverts

30+ percent of the people around you are introverts to a more or lesser degree, so if you are not one, it’s good to develop an understanding of what makes them tick.

Introverts like everyone else, can be brilliant, highly engaged and social.

Just because introverts don’t assert themselves proactively in all social situations or conversations, it doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy any social situations or conversations.

There are two things that are useful to understand if you want to improve your working relationship with introverts.

1. The interaction has to be worth it
2. They need some advance notice…you can’t just spring it on them!

If you can keep these two ideas in mind, you will be able to build much stronger connections and relationships with introverts.

1. It has to be worth it

Extroverts GET energy from interacting with people, it’s easy and fun for them. Interacting with others feeds their energy supplies.

Introverts on the other hand LOSE energy in interactions with others.

For an introvert all interactions are cost energy, no matter how easy or enjoyable the interaction is.

What this means in terms of working with an introvert is that we love interactions that are useful, interesting, valuable – in other words, an interaction needs to feel WORTH IT.

This implies a few things….

1. Introverts DETEST small talk

Small talk requires 100% of the investment of energy, with no return of something that is worth it. When you talk to an introvert, get to the point, and talk about things that are meaningful.

2. Introverts need to feel WELCOME in order to engage fully

If an introvert feels unwelcome, the alarm goes off. “Not welcome = seriously NOT WORTH IT”. It makes no sense to spend energy where you are not welcome in the first place.

(Obviously introvert leaders need to and can assert themselves in situations where they don’t feel welcome, as that’s how the world works, but if you are talking about how to motivate an introvert to engage — making them feel welcome is an important first aspect of getting cooperation.)

3. Introverts need to recover their energy after interactions.

And we do that alone.

We can keep interaction going for long periods of time, and even enjoy team and social activities, but the longer the time is between alone times, the bigger the energy crash will be when we get our alone time.

I remember in one of my corporate executive roles, after a series of about 15 media meetings following my keynote at a big event, one of my employees grabbed me, and she led me to a hidden cube-room in the event space and gave me a bottle of water. She said, “I’ll guard the door, you’ve got 20 minutes.” I was so thankful for this, as it gave me a chance to restore some energy for the next 50 meetings!

2. Don’t surprise them

Introverts don’t respond well to unexpected conversations. Sneaking up on an introvert is painful for them. Spontaneous, random interactions throw us off.

As an example, an introvert will often be unable to pick up a phone call. They will let it ring, then call back even 1 or 2 minutes later when the thought of interacting with the person is no longer a surprise.

Introverts live very much in their heads and their thoughts. It’s always very busy in there.

And we are comfortable in our thinking space. Introverts don’t get bored. There is always something interesting to think about!

Introverts are always building something in their minds, structures, narratives, pictures, lists, systems, algorithms… Imagine this to be like a virtual house of cards where every card has a particular place for a particular reason. It’s a lot to keep track of!

Any interruption serves to wipe out the structure we are maintaining in our mind at that moment. It’s painful.

So how do you approach an introvert if you just have q quick question?

I will tell you that just walking into their office and interrupting them is not the best way to get their cooperation.

Let me share a quick story about this…

Friendly Check-ins with Introverts

I remember when I was first a manager of a big group at Hewlett Packard. There was an expected management practice they called “Management by walking around”. The goal was to make managers more accessible to employees, and to foster conversations between employees and managers at all levels.

The intent of this is something I believe in WHOLE HEARTEDLY – that all the magic happens in unstructured, real, human conversations — connecting with people as people. In fact, I did a TEDx talk on this very idea.

But the practical execution of this idea was that managers were supposed to spend some time every week literally walking around and dropping in on people and saying, “Hi, how’s it going?”

As an introvert, this horrified me.

Particularly, as I was managing a team of software developers. I could not think of a worse thing to do to a likely introvert — who was concentrating on algorithms and coding and building and maintaining a structured, system of logic in their head –- than sneaking up on them to interrupt them with SMALL TALK! Yikes.

I absolutely hated this when my managers did it to me.

It would ruin my mood and my productivity. It always required a total reset where I needed to start building the structure in my head again from scratch. Why would I want to do that to my team??

Introvert-friendly check-ins

So I created a way to get the unstructured conversations flowing that was more introvert-friendly.

Instead of interrupting people randomly, I set up a rolling schedule of 15 minute 1-1 meetings. I would talk to 5-10 people every week this way.

I gave a list of questions ahead of time that they could consider, and they had a time slot that was not a surprise.

Granted, the conversation did not happen spontaneously, and might have seemed more formal at the onset, but it didn’t need to stay formal. With each person I could have a meaningful, informal, friendly discussion and they never felt caught off guard.

The extroverts would still randomly stop me in the hallway or the coffee room, so those informal interactions were not lost, but by adding the scheduled conversations, I made sure that I could talk to everyone. (The introverts would NEVER seek me out to chat!)

Working with introverts in a group

Two team activities that can be difficult for introverts are brainstorming and team-building.

Brainstorming: Introverts work much better when they can think quietly on their own.

Asking them to brainstorm without notice or preparation does not allow them to fully contribute. Their brains just don’t work that way.

Introvert-friendly Brainstorming

The way I use to get around this is that I let everyone know ahead of time, what topic we will be brainstorming. No preparation is required, but it’s a heads up for the introverts.

Then I do the brainstorming first by handing everyone sticky notes. I ask people to write one thought on each one. This thinking-alone-time allows the introverts to contribute their best ideas, and get comfortable with the process in general.

Then everyone puts their sticky notes on the wall and the group sorts them into categories together. By the time this is done, the introverts have had time to process the activity and the context, and are ready to actively contribute to the next steps in the discussion.

If you don’t do this, you run the risk that

1. They will not contribute to the shout out brainstorming part, and
2. Then they will not contribute to the working part because they never had an on-ramp to the process at all.

Team building activities and parties

One of my favorite introvert comments…

“I’ll happily participate in your team building activities, if you then agree to sit in a room full of people for 2 hours where we are each reading a book and you are not allowed to talk.”

Just recognize that many team building activities and work parties are not fun for introverts and can require a big lift at an enormous energy cost.

Introverts go to these because we feel obligated. We like to be part of the team, but required social interaction is just uncomfortable for most introverts.

Anything you can do to make it feel WORTH IT, vs just random social time together will help.

Thank them for coming and for being part of the team. Find your introverts and have a 1-1 conversation with each of them. Make them feel welcome.

Sometimes just the recognition that they are making an investment to be can go a long way. Because implying they are supposed to be having fun and enjoying it, it just makes them feel more uncomfortable and like there is something wrong with them.

Some practical ideas for engaging introverts more effectively:

1. If you need something from an introvert, schedule time to talk about it — even it it’s a 5 minute thing.
2. Give them a chance to prepare. Give them information ahead of time about what you’d like to talk about and what you will expect from them
3. Be on time and finish on time. Anything else feels random and stressful
4. Close the conversation with a useful outcome or next step. Make the meeting worth it.
5. In group discussions, give them a heads up and some thinking time ahead of time
6. In group social situations, create opportunities to engage with them 1-1

Authentic Networking

The topic in My Executive Mentoring Group this month is Authentic Networking.
You can explore the program here, and get the Executive Playbook on Authentic Networking for free here.

What do you think?

Join the conversation about this on my Facebook page Patty Azzarello Practical Business Advice for Humans.

Patty Azzarello

Patty is available to speak at your company, annual meeting, or customer event. She can also deliver a custom workshop on Leadership or Strategy Execution for your leadership team.

About Patty
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or facebook

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her books RISE and MOVE.

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