The Introvert in the Workplace: Becoming an Influencer and Leader

By Ben Woelk | STC Associate Fellow

Leadership is different for introverts. We’re not comfortable in the spotlight, and we don’t like telling people what to do. We don’t fit the stereotypical, hard-charging, charismatic, followers-hanging-on-their-every-word type of leader lionized by Western culture. We don’t always use direct means to accomplish our goals, finding that we can achieve the same results indirectly without conflict. In fact, we tend to operate as if we were in an Eastern culture. East Meets West: An Infographic Portrait by Yang Liu (http://bsix12.com/east-meets-west/) provides a fascinating set of graphics that display the cultural differences between life in Germany (the West) and life in China (the East). Those cultural differences are very similar to the differences between how extroverts and introverts relate to the world and each other.

Many introverts struggle to succeed in the workplace when asked to “think on their feet” or to make decisions without an array of well-studied facts in hand. Some introverts might look for leadership opportunities, but feel stymied when trying to figure out how to progress in their careers. Although not every introvert is interested in a formal leadership position (nor has the opportunity in their workplace), every introvert has the ability to become an influencer and to make a difference.

I’ve talked quite a lot about my experiences as an introverted leader (benwoelk.com) and the strategies I employ to be successful in and outside the workplace (“Lessons Learned On an Introvert’s Journey to Leadership,” https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2016/10/lessons-learned-on-an-introverts-journey-to-leadership). I recognize that my experience may not be normative, however, and I thought it would be worthwhile to share the experiences of other introverts in positions of leadership or influence.

I sent a brief questionnaire to five introverted leaders, inside and outside of STC and technical communication:

  • Alisa Bonsignore, current STC Director and Principal of Clarifying Complex Ideas, a strategic communication consultancy in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Kirk St.Amant, Professor and the Eunice C. Williamson Endowed Chair in Technical Communication at Louisiana Tech University, and Adjunct Professor of International Health and Medical Communication with the University of Limerick (Ireland).
  • Sara Feldman, President of the San Diego Chapter of STC and a technical writer with experience primarily in the software industry, focused on online support.
  • Eeshita Grover, a Senior Manager at Cisco with more than twenty years in the content industry and a career that spans writing, teaching, and managing technical writers.
  • Tara Schaufler, Senior Information Security Training and Outreach Specialist for Princeton University.

The questionnaire asked about:

  • Introversion-related challenges in the workplace.
  • How the respondents leveraged their unique abilities as an introvert.
  • How they acted as a leader or influencer.
  • Recommendations for other introverts in the workplace.
Introversion-related Challenges

As you can see from their titles, the respondents are employed in a variety of workspace settings. Although their responses differ, there are some threads that are woven throughout.

As the sole principal of her consultancy, Alisa is quite happy in her current work because it gives her control over client interactions, most of which occur in one-on-one conversations. In her corporate jobs, Alisa had to work hard to make her voice heard and was more inclined to let the more outgoing personalities battle it out in a meeting while she took notes and tried to find a middle ground.

For Kirk, his challenge as an introvert has been working in a role that involves acting like an extrovert on a regular basis. He plays this role across a range of very different activities, from teaching, to conference presentations, to meeting with community partners, clients, and other university colleagues—often in an 8- to 10-hour period with no downtime.

Leveraging Introvert Strengths and Abilities

Introverted strengths include:

  • Strong listening and analytical skills.
  • The ability to dive deeply into a topic.
  • The ability to participate in a team without seeking a lot of recognition.

Kirk finds that his ability to simply listen to what others have to say and encourage them to share their ideas and opinions helps them know that they’ve been heard. He also encourages multiple parties to speak with each other, instead of speaking at each other when meeting to discuss ideas.

Eeshita says that her introspectiveness helps her think ahead in a conversation. She also believes that her higher empathic abilities and sensitivity to others’ emotions help her in handling difficult situations with patience.

For Sara, she finds that she doesn’t focus on socializing at work or getting distracted by thinking about how other people feel about her. She tends to get along well with coworkers, but focuses more on the work and results than on putting energy into maintaining work-related social groups.

Influencers and Leaders

There isn’t one type of influencer or leader that fits all introverts.

Alisa finds that most of her influencer or leadership roles don’t fit traditional models. She identifies the following roles she’s had at different times in her career:

  • Project management
  • Mentoring
  • Thought leadership expressed through blogging, podcasting, writing, speaking, and teaching (about work or non-work-related subjects)

Kirk acts as an influencer by helping others bring their ideas to completion. He fills that role by working as a conference chair or organizational officer to expand conferences and meetings and encompass more diverse groups to exchange perspectives, or by using his position as editor to encourage others to develop their ideas, revise their work, or collaborate with different partners or parties they might not have considered or known.

Tara has found that it’s important to not be afraid to lead or speak up. She takes advantage of opportunities to be in the spotlight even though she knows it will be physically exhausting. Tara volunteers to lead discussions during in-house conferences, and she volunteers to give presentations in group settings.

Extroverts and introverts react very differently to heavy interaction in groups. While extroverts find interactions energizing (within reason), introverts find that group interactions may be draining, and need solitude to recharge.

Improving Meeting Performance

During last year’s Revive and Thrive workshop at Summit 2017, one of the issues we discussed was the difficulties introverts face when attending a meeting and being asked to give their opinion or respond to questions “on the spot.” A few weeks after the workshop, one of the participants mentioned that his manager had commented on his poor performance in meetings. In a follow-up conversation, the participant said he had addressed the issue by meeting with his manager before the meeting to preview what they would be discussing. This helped him to perform better, because he wasn’t hearing things for the first time at the meeting.

Recommendations for Introverts in the Workplace

I asked our respondents what they recommend for introverts who are interested in increasing their influence or taking a more active leadership role.

Early in her career, Alisa says that she fell into the trap of being “the quiet one.” The less she contributed, the more she felt no one really wanted to hear from her. Alisa points to the importance of realizing that the leaders we see around us did not become leaders overnight. Continuous learning was a big part of their growth process.

Alisa also recommends that you engage in an area that you’re passionate about, whether or not it’s work-related. By doing this, you’re able to convey that excitement through such activities as writing, blogging, being a docent, teaching, or mentoring.

Kirk recommends maximizing your innate introvert ability to listen to others in a way that makes them feel heard. Then he advises using that skill to help others focus on what they really wish to do or achieve, or to help them get to the root of the problem that concerns them.

Eeshita makes the point that quiet people have the loudest minds. Underneath that apparently placid introvert exterior is a mind that grapples with the possibilities. Trust your opinion and don’t be shy to share.

For Sara, it’s important for us to acknowledge that being an introvert influences how we need to rest and regain energy. However, that need to recharge does not make you less effective at work or less able in leadership positions.

Tara states passionately, “Push yourself!” Tara used to be afraid to step outside of her comfort zone, but understands that working outside of her comfort zone is essential to growth.

Communicating Our Value

One of the issues that many introverts face is that they don’t feel valued—or sometimes even noticed—by their employers. They see raises and promotions going to others who may not be as qualified but are more visible. Many of us assume that our contributions will be seen and acknowledged, and that we’ll be rewarded appropriately for them.

That assumption, however, might not be warranted. It’s often difficult for an introvert to “blow one’s own horn,” as we’re often reticent to talk about our accomplishments and contributions. Not only might we find that our contributions aren’t acknowledged if we don’t communicate them overtly, we also might find that others take credit for work we’ve done.

Here are some ways that introverts can communicate value:

  • Provide biweekly summaries of activities and accomplishments.
  • Share your analytical abilities by blogging about areas of interest.
  • Get a meeting agenda early enough to prepare.
  • Work on verbal communication skills by delivering presentations—gain skills from comedy improv or Toastmasters.
Other Thoughts

Some of the respondents offered additional thoughts on their experiences as introverted leaders.

Alisa restated that it’s easy to look at someone that you see as a leader today and assume that they always had a plan. In her experience—not so much. Alisa believes that life is a series of seemingly random choices that build over time. Early in her career, she never imagined being on a board of directors. She never thought that she’d have international clients and several speaking engagements a year. In her words, “none of this would have happened if I’d just been ‘the quiet one.’ I had to find my voice, sometimes through trial and error. Those errors make me empathetic and relatable. For me, that’s what leadership is all about.”

Kirk believes that the greatest challenge for introverts involves the focus on self that seems to be the nature of social media and other online formats. He recommends that we use those formats and technologies in ways that highlight the achievements of others both in our field and across disciplines. As we do so in ways that encourage others to follow that lead, we become influencers. Kirk says that we should focus on engaging in such activities in ways that foster or encourage collaboration.

Sara says that the most respected leaders are often those who:

  • Don’t lead with their ego.
  • Are willing to admit mistakes.
  • Don’t take things too personally.

She says this holds true both for extroverts and introverts. Leaders should focus on the team and results, because the best leaders know that it’s not about them anyway.

In Closing

I identify with many of the statements of these introverted leaders. Like Alisa, I didn’t see myself in leadership roles or speaking passionately about introverted leadership. (If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be a leader, mentor, and speaker, I’d have told you that you were crazy.)

It’s important to realize that as introverts, we have a great deal to offer and can make a difference. It’s also important, as Alisa points out, to understand that leaders aren’t made in a day. Leaders are the sum of many life experiences and choices. The key is that leaders are willing to be uncomfortable, recognizing that stretching ourselves can be painful but absolutely necessary for growth.

Read up on introversion and leadership. Explore MBTI, Keirsey.com, and other tools that lead to self-understanding. Engage and network with others. Identify and develop your talents and follow your passion. Both introverts and extroverts can be influencers and leaders. You just need to do it in the way that works best for you.

BEN WOELK (ben.woelk@gmail.com), CISSP, CPTC, is Vice President of STC. A frequent conference presenter, Ben has received numerous Society and local awards, including the 2017 STC President’s Award. Ben’s 20+ years techcomm experience includes management, SW and HW documentation, ISO 9001 documentation, instructor-led and web-based training, end user communications, and policies and procedures. Find Ben on his website, Benwoelk.com, or on Twitter as @benwoelk.