I regularly receive messages from introverts working in the corporate world saying they thought their introversion has held them back in their career. Sometimes they still think it does.
And you know what? In some cases this might be true.
Especially if we associate introversion with shyness, or use it as a label to excuse us from doing the scary things.
“I can’t go to that networking event, I’m too introverted.”
“My introversion means that I’ll never be able to build up the network I need to advance in my career.”
“I’m an introvert, so I’m shy and can’t speak up.”
When we tell ourselves something enough, it becomes true. So it might be true that your introversion has stopped you from taking advantage of opportunities that come your way. In fact, for other introverts, it has done.
These are real comments from people who identify as introverts on the consequences of doing just this:
“I’d have made some sort of career”
“I’d have been very popular”
“I would have plans for the weekend”
“I would still be an introvert, but I wouldn’t be so terrible when it comes to having even a simple small talk / conversation or any sort of interaction”
If you can relate, do not despair.
Trust me, your introversion can become a secret superpower. Once I realised this, it changed everything:
- I left a comfortable job to jump to a volatile start-up that may have failed in the next 6 months—and made sure it didn’t fail
- I networked my way into groups of C-Suite Executives and made friends in the process
- I organised a TEDx event in London… in a pandemic
See, your introversion can be a strength or a limitation depending on your perspective.
Let’s start with… what is an introvert?
There is a huge amount of confusion around the idea of introversion.
It’s associated with:
- Shy (thanks to Oxford Languages).
- Shy and “prefers to spend time alone rather than being with other people” (thanks to Cambridge Dictionary).
- Reserved (thanks to Merriam-Webster).
- “Tends to have difficulty adjusting to social situations” (thanks to Brittanica).
These are old and frankly outdated definitions. In fact, Introvert, Dear and Beyond Introversion (two sources of fantastic information about introversion) started a petition to update Thesauruses with more accurate synonyms for “Introvert”. You can add your signature to it here.
Introversion is all about energy.
We all have an internal supply of energy.
Some people find it is drained by social interaction—even when they’re having fun. They need time alone to recharge and are more introverted. Others gain energy from being with other people, and are more extroverted.
Ambiverts are people who get energy equally from quiet and stimulating environments.
So the questions are: what helps you feel energised? What drains you of energy?
Do you leave a group of friends having had a fun time but feeling exhausted? Or are you craving more?
So how can your introversion help you develop professional skills?
First let’s look at some wonderful introversion strengths. Introverts are typically…
- Thoughtful: We think before we speak. Even in casual conversations, we consider what other people have said carefully and stop and reflect before responding.
- Complex problem-solvers: Because we soak in a lot of information from the environment around us (which is one of the main reasons why we get overwhelmed in social situations: there is just so much to take in), we’re able to spot connections and patterns that others overlook.
- Able to commit to deep focus: Introverts seek depth over breadth. We like to dig deep—diving into issues, ideas, and challenges before moving on to new ones. This is why we are drawn to meaningful conversations rather than superficial chitchat.
- Great with writing: Introverts prefer writing to talking. On the job, we prefer email to calling someone and are likely to prefer writing reports over giving presentations.
- Don’t like to be the centre of attention: Introverts are usually quieter than others. This even shows in our voice: we tend to speak softly and slowly. Being in the spotlight constantly isn’t generally something we like—instead we prefer to fly below the radar.
The fact that we don’t need other people is our secret weapon. We can spend time alone working on our skills, before choosing to socialise with others. (I call it being “selectively social”).
Looking back at these qualities (and more which are not listed, such as being great at listening, remaining calm under pressure, and forming deep supportive connections): they are all hallmarks of being a good leader.
In fact, Harvard Business School found that introverts can be better leaders than extroverts (!). “An introverted leader is more likely to listen to and process the ideas of an eager team,” writes Harvard Business School professor Carmen Nobel.
So often we believe this not to be the case. That people who are more extroverted, loud, confident, and push their ideas forward no matter what, are better leaders.
James Abruzzo, the director of the Institute of Ethical Leadership at Rutgers business school, has some advice for introverts who struggle to feel comfortable in leadership roles:
“As an introverted individual, you can become very depressed and self-defeating if you believe that you need to be extroverted to be a leader. So that’s the first thing—understand that concept. You do not need to be extroverted to lead people, and you do not need to be extroverted for people to follow you. You have to firmly believe that.”
Simply put: a leader is someone who influences others.
Focusing on embracing your strengths as an introverted leader, which include being methodical, visionary, communicating clearly in writing, among others, helps you get “your leadership goals not by being the loudest person in the room but instead by being the go-to person for what you want to lead and for being the person who inspires the highest quality results”.
What does this look like in practise?
Your introverted strengths can help you springboard your career. Here are some ideas on how to do this in real life:
(1) Hone your strength in the power of observation
Introverts are typically highly observant. Translated into professional talk, this is the part of your resume or CV when you speak about your “attention to detail”.
We’re likely to notice if someone isn’t feeling their best (but hasn’t said anything) or can pour over data in detail, picking out patterns and errors. This may show up particularly well in roles like editors, data analysts, and computer programmers.
Being good with the details is a strong skill to have. And, luckily for us, it’s something that might feel easier than a lot of other people.
Lean into it. Highlight it. Write about it.
(2) Upskill in areas where you have particularly strong natural strengths
Confidence is all about being certain of your abilities. It’s the feeling that you can handle the outcome of a situation… no matter what is it.
You can leverage this idea by upskilling in certain areas. Specifically, using skills that can advance your career.
Pick something that you enjoy or are naturally good at. For example, I really enjoy writing (which is a typical introvert strength) and developed a reputation at work of being someone who is excellent at proof-reading and copy-writing.
You start to become known as the go-to person for that activity. This starts to take advantage of the halo effect. The Decision Lab describe it as “a cognitive bias that claims that positive impressions of people, brands, and products in one area positively influence our feelings in another area.”
So if someone thinks you’re competent in one area (graphic design, copywriting, spreadsheets), they assume that you’re competent in other areas. i.e. that you’re someone who is good at your job.
(3) The power of being thoughtful: you make an impact
Introverts like to take time to think before they speak. We’re creatures who like to observe first, talk later.
In fact, we think to understand. People who are more extroverted tend to talk to understand. It’s the reason why you’ll see a group of extroverts talking all over each other, interrupting left, right, and centre… and loving it.
It’s partly why introverts are great listeners. We pay someone the biggest compliment by making them the centre of our world—even just for a moment. We actively consider what they are saying and what would be a great response.
This can become incredibly powerful in meetings. Especially meetings that you have prepared for in advance.
It’s something I remind all my private coaching clients: 10 minutes of prepration before a networking conversation or meeting can go a very long way. It also boosts your confidence: you feel ready to share your ideas because you’ve spent time working on them.
And make sure you share them! Even if it’s in an email afterwards. As introverts, because we are interrupted and spoken over so often, we feel like no one wants to hear our ideas. This isn’t the case. Sometimes it takes more effort to share them compared to people who speak their thoughts out loud. Knowing how you best communicate is key for this.
I want to go on a brief tangent here.
Because introverts spend so much time in our head, sometimes we start to overthink. We get trapped in our head and question everything.
“Should I say this? People will think it’s a stupid idea.”
“I haven’t said anything all meeting… I need to say something now, but I don’t have anything to contribute.”
“It’s been too long since I last spoke, what can I say now?!”
It’s a horrible feeling. What was a simple “just share your idea” has become a mountain of dread, overwhelm, and shame.
If you get like this in a meeting, it’s a sign you need to come out of your head and back into your body. You can do this by:
- Write down what’s happening in the meeting. Take notes with a pen and paper in front of you. Focus on the task at hand rather than your thoughts. This is also a great way of coming up with something to say.
- Bring your attention to your breath. Breathe in for 4 counts. Start to soften your body for 2 counts, before actively breathing out for 4 counts. Soften your body again for 2 counts, before breathing in for 4. Repeat this a few times. It lowers your heart rate and calms your nervous system down.
- Focus on your big toes. Yes—I know that sounds really weird. But it works. Feel your toes on the floor. Breathe. Keep your focus there for a few minutes. It helps transfer your attention out of your head and into your body.
Embracing your introversion as a part of who you are helps you discover previously unknown strengths that can support you in advancing your career. Although we can learn to become extroverted, if we don’t honour the part of us that needs to be alone to recharge, we can become incredibly grumpy!
Here’s how you can use your introverted strengths to support you in your career:
- Find out what your strengths are, and really take the time to hone them. If attention to detail is your thing, emphasise this as much as possible in your job.
- Upskill in your strengths. Become known as the person who does X. This is a fantastic way of building a reputation without having to speak to every person in the company.
- Leverage your thoughtfulness. Actively listen. Speak when you have something to say (but avoid getting too stuck in your head!).
Your introversion is a wonderful part of the complex human that you are. Embrace it.
Did you know there were 4 different shades of introversion?
Recent research has found out that instead of one “type” (which is already too simplified), there are different shades: Social, Thinking, Anxious, Restrained.
I’m a Thinking Introvert. Which one are you?
Take this quiz to find out more: