Introverts in the Workplace

Self-proclaimed introvert and hermit entrepreneur, Morra Aarons-Mele is the founder of the award-winning social impact agency Women Online and the founding political director of BlogHer.com. She has written for the Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and lectured at Yale Women’s Campaign School, the Kennedy School and the World Economic Forum for Young Global Leaders. Morra hosts the podcast Hiding in the Bathroom and is the author of the book with the same title published in 2017 by Dey St., an imprint of William Morrow. Her aim with both: to broaden the perception of what successful employees look like for the benefit of employees themselves and the companies for which they work.

Gatti: Why do you champion the cause of introverts in the workplace?

Aarons-Mele: Conventional wisdom has many believing there is one set of requisite characteristics to be a successful leader in corporate America, that achievement is the domain of the super intense, super social go-getter extrovert who commands and thrives on the attention of all around him or her and prioritizes work above all else, but this view diminishes the value of diversity in the workplace. I’ve interviewed hundreds of employees and found that most do not fit that one mold. Many require alone time to access deep thinking to do their best work – the trait of an introvert.

When you think about it, 24/7 interaction and collaboration is not good for anybody. How many times have you walked into an open floor plan office to find the majority of employees wearing sound-cancelling headphones? Or heard employees complain about the daily sprint from meeting to meeting with no time in between to think?

Gatti: Why should companies focus on creating a culture that is conducive for introverts?

Aarons-Mele: It’s not just about creating a culture for introverts. If a company is to get the full commitment and contribution from each and every employee—including those who need time alone to maximize their energy—it must create and sustain a flexible work environment in which all employees can thrive and a culture that respects this diversity.

I recently spoke to employees at a big accounting firm that installed reclining chairs for employees to use away from the hubbub of offices. Unfortunately, several employees spoke about the backlash from using them, including snide jokes about sleeping on the job. At the other end of the spectrum are high-tech companies like Google with campus environments that include spaces for employees to disengage and recharge, including treadmill rooms, greenhouses and outdoor seating areas — as well as the expectation that employees use them.

Flexible schedules and time in the office, the option to work from home or outside of the bustling office, quiet spaces in the office – all help to prevent talented introverts from opting out of corporate life for self-employment. I’ve found many introverts choose to be entrepreneurs in order to shape a work environment in which they can thrive.

Gatti: How can HR help managers not dismiss introverts?

Aarons-Mele: First of all, many introverts appear to be extroverts during job interviews. They are “on” and engaged throughout the process, as introverts can and will be when necessary. In fact, not all introverts are quiet. Some are quite chatty. Even Oprah Winfrey and Amy Schumer proclaim they are introverts who have learned to act like extroverts in public and profess to “hide in the bathroom.”

During the hiring process and in meetings with current staff, leaders must be counseled not to confuse pauses between questions and answers or a quiet demeanor for lack of determination or energy. Introverts tend to be good listeners and highly attuned to interpersonal dynamics. They typically are not the people who fill up a room with their presence, but just as ambitious and driven as the classic extrovert.

Companies don’t think twice about providing ergonomic desks, gym memberships and other benefits to keep employees productive and energized. For the same reasons, managers should routinely engage employees in honest discussion about how they do their best work and then readily facilitate their needs.