3 powerful ways to excel in your career as an introvert

Ever wanted to leave a party before it officially ended so you can curl up in your PJs in front of the TV? Enjoy one-to-one conversations over large crowds? Prefer independent working in a quiet space to constant collaboration?

If you’ve said yes to any of these, it’s likely that you are an introvert, or at least have some introverted tendencies. Welcome to the club! I am a fully-fledged member of the introverted team and proud of it!

I could literally spend one hour a week speaking to someone else and be happy with it. Especially during COVID, living with one other person whom I have chosen to live with, has consistently been too much that I’m convincing him to take every opportunity to get away from me and often prefer to sit in a room by myself (having already sat all day long in a room by myself working).

However, often introverts get a bad name for themselves. They are anxious, shy, depressed, boring, neurotic, and uninspiring. Well, they may be any or all of these traits, but none of these have any correlation to introversion.

But why wouldn’t you want to follow in the footsteps of Barack Obama, JK Rowling, or Rosa Parks, all famous introverts?

However, although introverts make up an estimated 25 to 40 percent of the population, we live with a value system that Susan Cain in her book Quiet calls the Extrovert Ideal. That is, “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.”

And she asks: Why shouldn't Quiet be strong? And what else can Quiet do that we don't give it credit for?

Using examples taken from Cain’s book Quiet, in this blog we’re going to explore what introverts - YOU - can do to excel in their career, as they’ve far more power than they think. 

Let’s start by asking ourselves what an introvert is. 

What is an introvert?

There’s no all-purpose definition of introversion and extroversion but there are several points that psychologists agree on. 

Firstly, introverts and extroverts differ in the levels of outside stimulation they need in order to function well. Introverts prefer less stimulation. 

Secondly, introverts and extroverts work differently. Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly, while introverts work more slowly and deliberately, and focus on one task at a time. 

Socially, introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but they then like to retreat. Introverts prefer to devote their time to close friends and family. 

3 great reasons to be an introvert in the workplace and how you can excel as an introvert in your career.

1. Leadership

It may surprise you, as leaders are more likely to be extroverts, but the correlation between extraversion and leadership is modest and introverts can be positive leaders. Here’s an example of how and why. 

In one experiment, organisational psychologist Adam Grant divided students into competing teams and asked them to fold as many t-shirts as possible in 10 minutes. 

However, each team included two actors which the participants didn’t know about. In some teams, the two actors acted passively, following the leader’s instructions, while in other teams they upended the status quo by asking whether there was a more efficient way to complete the task. Find that, from the second actor, there was a novel t-shirt folding method from Japan that they could try, the actors then asked the leader whether they could try it out.

Grant found that introverted leaders were 20% more likely to follow the suggestion, and if they did their teams had 24% better results than the teams of the extroverted leaders. However, when the followers were not proactive, the teams led by extroverts outperformed those led by introverts by 22%.

Why did these leaders’ effectiveness turn on whether their employees were passive or proactive? 

Grant's explanation is that introverts are uniquely good at leading initiative-takers. They are inclined to listen to others and are uninterested in dominating social situations, therefore introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions. And having benefited from the talents of their followers, they are then likely to motivate them to be even more proactive. 

In this way, introverted leaders create a virtuous cycle of proactivity. Extroverts, on the other hand, can be so intent on putting their own stamp on things that they risk losing other’s good ideas along the way and allowing workers to lapse into passivity. 


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2. Creativity

From 1956 to 1962 scientists at Berkeley conducted a series of studies on the nature of creativity. They sought to identify the most spectacularly creative people and figure out what made them different from everyone else. 

To do this, they assembled a list of architects, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and writers who had made major contributions to their fields, and invited them to Berkeley for a weekend of personality tests, problem-solving experiments, and probing questions.

They then compared them to those in the same professions whose contributions were less groundbreaking. 

More creative people tended to be what they called “socially poised introverts,” that is, highly interpersonally skilled, however not especially sociable or participative. You know, those that would describe themselves as independent and individualistic. 

Why? Their suggestion was that because introverts prefer to work independently, this solitude can be a catalyst for innovation. It’s not that introverts are innately more creative, they are just better at seeing their projects through to completion. 

So next time your friends are telling you that you’re needed in the local park, remind them that you’re too busy working on your masterpiece. 

3. Problem-solving

You’re invited to play a game at psychologist Joseph Newman’s lab where the more points you get, the more money you win. 

Twelve different numbers flash across a screen, one at a time, in no particular order. You’re given a button as if you were a game-show contestant, which you can press or not as each number appears. If you press the button for a “good” number, you win points; if you press for a “bad” number, you lose points; and if you don’t press at all, nothing happens. 

Through trial and error you learn that, for example, four is a good number and nine is a bad number. So the next time the number nine flashes across your screen, you know not to press that button. 

Except that sometimes people press the button for the bad numbers, even when they should know better. Extroverts, especially highly impulsive extroverts, are more likely than introverts to make this mistake.

But the interesting aspect of this puzzling behaviour is not what the extroverts do before they’ve hit the wrong button, but what they do after. When introverts hit the number nine button and find they’ve lost a point, they slow down before moving on to the next number, as if to reflect on what went wrong. But extroverts not only fail to slow down, they actually speed up.

It’s suggested that introverts are “geared to inspect” whilst extroverts are “geared to respond”.

If you focus on achieving your goals, as reward-sensitive extroverts do, you don’t want anything to get in your way. You speed up in an attempt to knock these roadblocks down. And in problem-solving, this means that they don’t consider information to make decisions. 

However, introverts are constitutionally programmed to downplay rewards and scan for problems. They might ask themselves “Is this what I thought would happen? Is this how it should be?” And when the situation falls short of expectations, they form associations between the moment of disappointment (losing points) and whatever was going on in their environment at the time of the disappointment (hitting the number nine). These associations let them make accurate predictions about how to react to warning signals in the future. 

Once again, introverts and no better than extroverts in terms of their innate intelligence. It’s that introverts think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on task longer, give up less easily and work more accurately, and this behaviour causes them to be better problem solvers.

They are no better at the task, but their method of going about it gets better results.

Now that you’ve seen how introverts can perform well in the workplace, how are you going to own your introversion and excel in these traits?

If you’re an extrovert, what can you learn from the power of introverts?

We’d love to hear all about your experience.