Quiet boss: Leadership for introverts

Quiet boss: Leadership for introverts

Working on complex problems as an introvert can get tricky. Your introverted side is suited for digging into complex issues, thinking about the big picture, and staying persistent. But you need to share and collaborate beyond yourself to make things happen and it can seem like extroverts have the advantage in that arena.

There’s a book that can provide some insights into our challenges. The reading for June was “Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” by Susan Cain. A self-proclaimed introvert herself, Cain dove into the science and theory behind the difference between introverts and extroverts, exploring how we can all learn to celebrate each other’s unique gifts. There were plenty of tips for current and aspiring introverted leaders.


1. Be aware of the extrovert ideal, especially if you’re also an introvert

“Why are you so quiet?”

The dreaded question that many introverts have been asked at some point. Unfortunately, you might have heard it so many times that you start assuming that something’s wrong with you. You try to move out of that space and “act like an extrovert.” You might look back at the poor souls still on the quiet side, hoping they’ll find their way to the other side too, so that they can have a chance to succeed.

Cain explores how the “extrovert ideal” came to be, why it’s so prevalent in our society, and how it overlooks many of the cases where introverted tendencies are beneficial for leaders and creatives. Traditional networking and group brainstorming sessions help some people move up the ranks, who in turn share their methods with others (or impose them). However, there are also plenty of introverted leaders who built new products, were gentle leaders, and made wiser decisions that protected their companies during turbulent times.

Application to daily life

Besides being aware of your biases, don’t assume that everyone is an extrovert. One-third to one-half of the population are introverts and there were a lot of interesting case studies in the book about people whom I assumed were extroverts but turned out to be self-proclaimed introverts. Certain fields and job titles tend to attract one personality type more than another, but avoid stereotyping. Get to know people to figure out what kinds of working and communication styles they prefer, beyond what their skills and qualifications are.

Also, think about the style of leadership that you want to follow. It could be a detriment to act like the opposite personality type if you feel like you really prefer a different style. Think about your team as well. Do you really want to encourage everyone to act the same way? There have been impressive leaders at both ends of the spectrum.


2. Reframe how you think about selling

Cain shares an inspiring story about Jon Berghoff, who started selling knives door to door in high school. A socially awkward, introverted high schooler by day, he became the top salesman in the company, recruited, hired, and trained other salespeople, and eventually launched his own company to coach others. His sales strategy was to ask a lot of questions to get to know the residents and he saw his role as more of an advisory one than a persuasive one.

“I discovered early on that people don’t buy from me because they understand what I’m selling. They buy because they feel understood.”

– Jon Berghoff

Cain explains why that technique could be effective by referencing a study done by development psychologist Avril Thorne. After listening to conversations between introverts and extroverts, the researchers found that the extroverts tended to focus on light-hearted topics to find commonality with the other person. Introverts tended to focus on more serious topics and problem solving. When they asked participants how they felt about the conversations, they found that both personality types appreciated the other to help balance their normal tendencies. Introverts felt more upbeat with extroverts and extroverts felt like they could open up to introverts.

Application to daily life

Introverts can be great salespeople because they ask questions and get to know the people they are “selling” to. Don’t worry about selling yourself and instead, focus on learning about the people you are interacting with. Before any situation where you feel like you might need to “sell” something, either in daily life or work, think about two approaches for making a connection. What kinds of questions could you ask to learn more about their problems? What kinds of questions could you ask or comments could you make to establish commonality? That mix of preparation can help you navigate the conversation and adapt your style to the other person and what the situation needs, either serious problem solving or a light-hearted break.


3. Design your space and schedule to find the stimulation “sweet spot”

Constant interruptions throughout the day are a huge productivity waste for anyone, but can be especially detrimental to creative work. Agile rooms and open office plans are only useful if you’re constantly working together, asking questions, and sharing ideas. Otherwise, it’s too easy for people to get distracted. Open office plans have been linked to reduced productivity, impaired memory, higher staff turnover, decreased health, increased stress, demotivation, insecurity, and a higher likelihood of arguing with colleagues.

And Cain points out that multiple studies have shown that introverts are more sensitive to noise and other stimuli than extroverts. They also tend to focus more on threat mitigation and don’t get as large of a “buzz” from being around others. This means that an office space that might work well for some personality types will be less than ideal for others. Everyone’s need for stimulation changes throughout the day and each person’s “sweet spot” will be different. Designing a one-size-fits-all office space is an antiquated approach that might make sense for a factory floor but not for knowledge work.

Collaboration is important but Cain references studies showing that providing time to focus on “Deliberate Practice” is the best way to improve individual skills. Many top achievers happen to be introverts. And it’s not that introverts are particularly smarter, it’s that they naturally tend to spend more time practicing in solitude.  Practicing deliberately and alone allows people to focus on the work that challenges them the most, without worrying about peer pressure.

“If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class- you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”

– Anders Ericsson, research psychologist, on why Deliberate Practice works best when you’re alone

Application to daily life

Leaders in creative fields found that it was better for professionals to have private spaces to get their work done with minimal distractions. On the other hand, it can be useful to have a separate meeting space for collaboration and to offer a change of pace for extroverts and introverts alike. Online collaboration works well because it gives people the privacy and solitude for deep thinking along with a social forum for collaboration. Think about the design of your physical spaces, desks, conference rooms, and other nooks. Don’t forget about remote work and your virtual spaces such as virtual chat rooms around different topics. Pick furniture that’s easy to move around and re-configure if you don’t have enough space for separate rooms.

If you don’t have any control over the physical design of the space, work with your team to figure out some ground rules for how the space will be used. Will you have a policy that people need to take calls and meetings outside of the room or that anyone can be interrupted at any time? What signals will you use to indicate that someone’s “in the zone” and working vs. open to chat? How will you use chatrooms and what types of communication do you expect a speedy reply to vs. could be answered later? Can you negotiate some time to work off-site or find a separate workspace away from your normal desk?

Plan your weeks with chunks of time to devote to group collaboration vs. individual thought. Will you cluster meetings to one part of the day? To certain days of the week? Jason Fried, co-founder of 37signals goes as far as to recommend “No-Talk Thursdays” where employees aren’t allowed to talk to each other. Base the ratio of group to individual work around your goals. Are you looking to promote “social glue” or creativity?


4. Plan events and meetings with introverts and extroverts in mind

There are times when you need meetings and get togethers but the wrong format can cause introverts and extroverts to clash. Cain shares an example of a couple, where one person wanted to hold weekly dinner parties but the other would be drained by those events. The large group conversations were tiring for the introvert because of the conversational multitasking involved. Their compromise was to change the format of the dinner, making it buffet style. That way there could be multiple side conversations for the introvert while the extrovert could enjoy being with everyone.

Application to daily life

Large group meetings to introverts are like parties. You’ll probably see people who know each other hanging out in small groups together and unlikely to mingle and small talk. Make sure that your meeting spaces have areas where small discussions can occur, and be especially aware of acoustics. Structure the meetings around in-depth topics rather than small talk to appeal to the introverts. Include a mix of activities. And avoid ice-breakers that put people in the spotlight in front of a large group. Focus on the quality, not quantity of meetings so that you promote the amount of communication and connection that you’re looking for without tiring out introverts.

On the other hand, if you’re not in charge of the meeting design, look for “networking” events that better fit your personality as an introvert. If you would rather avoid “networking happy hours” in a crowded bar then look for other options like a smaller sit-down lunch or dinner, a coffee date, or an activity. There are so many options nowadays both in-person and online that there’s no need to spend all of your energy in a format that’s uncomfortable if you can get similar results somewhere else.


5. Find (or build) a forum to share what’s going on in your head

One problem with being an introvert is that people don’t know what’s going on in your head so they may assume that you don’t have ideas or that you’re unfriendly, which can cause you to be passed over. However, I’m sure that no one would have wanted to spare the world from Einstein’s thoughts or J.K. Rowling’s writing. Introverts sometimes have extra trouble sharing our inner dialogue and being in the spotlight.

Application to daily life

Pay attention to your “talk/do ratio.” If the ratio is low, find a communication channel that works for you. Maybe it’s writing updates and sharing them in a weekly newsletter. Maybe it’s blogging, podcasting, or making videos. Maybe you like weekly check-in meetings or one-on-one calls to catch up. Pick a channel that is comfortable for you and make it a weekly habit. If you’re leading introverts encourage them to do the same and then let them recharge and work the way they would like to for the rest of the week. If you need extra communication, consider partnering with an extrovert, which can help you manage your energy and craft messages that better resonate with extroverts.


Leading as a “quiet boss” doesn’t require changing your entire personality. It’s all about maximizing the quality of time spent, either in deep thought or collaboration, promoting a balance of styles, and providing flexibility for people to adapt their environment to suit their energy and concentration needs.

What other tips do you have for introverted changemakers?


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