Being an introvert by nature prevents women in particular from getting ahead in business. To remain true to themselves, how can more low-key personalities achieve their goals?
Donald Trump has proved that the most uninhibited extrovert can stomp to the very top of the leadership ladder. Trump thrives when he’s among the masses. The bigger the crowd, the louder and more assured he gets. He knows exactly what to say, at just the right time.
As an extrovert, Trump is an extreme and, perhaps, aggressive example. Yet, he does embody elements of the personality trait that society favours; we smile at the toddler who sings the loudest at music group and laugh with the quick-witted classmate. We savour positive attention from the bubbly girls and outgoing guys at high school.
Even the workplace is set up to favour extroverts, says Susan Cain, best-selling author and co-founder of the Quiet Revolution, an organisation that aims to unlock the power of introverts. “We work in open-plan offices without walls, where we are subject to the constant noise and gaze of our co-workers,” she says in her TED talk on introversion, which has been viewed more than 15 million times. “And when it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely passed over for these positions.”
Researchers estimate that a third to a half of the population lean towards introversion. Applied to the workplace, can this number be ignored?
Double-glazed glass ceiling
“Introverted women are worried that they are seen as not interested or appear disengaged. Or seen as not as confident because they don’t speak up.”
Megumi Miki, author & leadership specialist
The polar opposite to Trump is the introverted female. Her quieter nature and gender presents her with a “double-glazed glass ceiling”, according to author and leadership and culture specialist Megumi Miki.
Miki has spoken with more than 200 women who identify as introverted across Australia. A major concern for them is that their employers and colleagues misunderstand them, says Miki. “They are worried that they appear disengaged,” she says. “Or that they are not confident because they don’t speak up, or that they don’t want to contribute.”
However, Miki says introverted women who have leadership ambitions can’t wait until the workplace becomes more favourable to them; they need to adapt if they want to get ahead. And encouraging these women to “be more confident” or to “fake it ‘til you make it” won’t help in the long term.
An introvert herself, Miki recalls being exhausted early in her career when she “put on a power suit and heels” in a bid to adopt the extroverted persona expected from someone working for a leading business consultancy.
What will help introverted women edge out of their comfort zone? Miki says finding a passion that they can incorporate into their everyday work is a great enabler. “There needs to be some pull towards wanting to contribute more,” she advises. “You need to work out what you are passionate about and then connect it with an end outcome that is useful to the business.”
Quietly powerful in HR
Introverted female HR leaders may face the challenge of being the only female at the top table and competing to be heard among leaders of major profit centres that traditionally hold sway. Yet those who identify as introvert can still make a strategic impact while remaining true to themselves, Miki says.
Having sight of the “bigger picture”, strong facilitation skills and being able to ask the right questions can give introverts a valuable presence. “These skills can be an advantage because you can help solve problems instead of dominating,” she says.
Quieter HR professionals should also try to be more strategic in their one-on-one conversations with other leaders, Miki says. “Really get into their minds about what’s concerning them about the business, and find out how you can help.”
Case study 1: Introverts working on it
Lorraine Pestell, manager of strategy and performance IT at State Trustees, has worked in nine countries over the past 35 years. Although she’s very knowledgable in her role, she believes being an introvert has hindered promotion opportunities and stifled her performance in interviews.
Meticulous preparation, rehearsing responses and being conscious of her breathing helps her be more articulate when being put on the spot.
“I also like to bring visuals or other examples of my work along with me, to help me call particular answers to mind,” she says.
Traditional networking and self-promotion does not come naturally, so Pestell has found other ways to become more visible as an introvert. “I seek out opportunities to speak with senior executives and build relationships on a more informal basis, in the hope that they’ll remember my name and the initiatives I’m involved with.”
Case study 2: All in the mind
If someone had told Caroline Stainkamph as a graduate that she would one day be in a senior role that focused on people she’d have been “horrified”.
Stainkamph started at Computershare as an introverted 18-year-old coder. “It was an amazing job for me because I just got to sit at a computer and code.”
Now, 29 years later and head of business management and transformation (global technology services) she’s still an introvert, but credits her advancement with exchanging her “fixed mindset” with a “growth mindset”.
“I just have a lot more self-awareness and understanding about what I’m good or not good at… and got better at feeling comfortable with myself and giving things a go.”
Many years of trying and practising speaking to new people (including introducing herself to one colleague at a time in the office kitchen) means she now has a “bring it on” response to presenting or running workshops. “But I know that if I have workshops or presentations, I’ll have to factor some time for deep thinking and research in my week to recharge.”
Ways to be quietly powerful
1. Don’t listen to the stereotypes about introversion or apologise for it.
2. Understand and appreciate who you are, your strengths and find what’s useful about your so-called ‘weaknesses’. For example, your reserved nature can be valuable as a leader in empowering teams to contribute ideas.
3. Know how to leverage all of your qualities, both strengths and ‘weaknesses’.
4. Invest in learning skills and techniques to add to your natural qualities, not to fix or replace your ‘weaknesses’.
5. Find an area of work that you are passionate about. You can be courageous and build confidence when you are passionate.
6. Help your colleagues understand how you work best and get support from colleagues you trust. For example, they may give you an ‘in’ or space to be heard in a meeting you are prepared for.
7. Do something. Start with baby steps and keep building on it.
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