How to succeed as an introvert in IT
Deep-thinking, sensitive, and publicity-shy, introverts are often overlooked or, worse, dismissed by a culture that values quick action, fast talk, and showmanship, argues bestselling author Susan Cain. Charismatic leaders who can work a room are favored for promotion over quiet persuaders who prefer one-to-one conversations. Extroverts who think out loud in meetings drive decisions, even when a less vocal colleague may have a better idea.
Just because extroverts get most of the attention doesn’t mean they should, says Cain, a former Wall Street lawyer who set out to discover what makes introverts tick. It turns out that life-of-the-party types and their colleagues who prefer curling up with a book need each other to succeed. An introvert herself, Cain launched the Quiet Tech Network (QTN) to leverage the strengths of both introverts and extroverts to create workplace cultures that realize every employee’s potential. The QTN offers training for technical individuals and teams, to help them better understand how personality differences can lead to more effective professional relationships, happier employees, and better corporate performance.
Meanwhile, she says, introverts who understand themselves can learn strategies for being heard and being recognized without feeling as if they need to change their personalities. I talked with Cain about the impact an extroverted business culture has on IT and how introverts can thrive as employees and leaders.
Starting with your first book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, you have argued that American culture is dominated by extroverts and that qualities of introverts aren't valued highly enough. Why is that a problem?
If you feel that the way you intrinsically are is not the way your culture expects you to be, it causes a kind of crisis of self on some level. But it also depletes your energies. You're going to school or you're going to work in an organization that expects you to act more extroverted. Most people try to comply. That means it can take a lot of energy just to get through your day—and that's energy that could be spent doing more productive things.
Non-technologists often complain that IT pros don't communicate well, that they focus too much on technical details and don’t understand business. Given that many IT pros identify themselves as introverts, can you explain the disconnection in terms of personality type?
It's partly a way to look at it and partly not. Introverts have a tendency to go deep, and they may be less naturally inclined to look at the broader picture. But introverts and extroverts often start from a place of mutual incomprehension. The introversion-extroversion dichotomy is not any kind of excuse for a lack of emotional intelligence on both sides.
I would encourage starting from a place of mutual respect and mutual understanding. The introverted technologist has to say, “There's value to this person to whom I'm bringing my knowledge, because that person will apply it in a broader way than I would be inclined to do myself.” But then that business person has to have respect for the person whose depth and focus they are relying on, probably without being aware of how much they do.
You describe the tendency of introverts to approach new experiences carefully. IT leaders are often urged to deploy new technologies faster, but they may feel their colleagues don't understand how complex IT is. Is this an example of an extroverted culture not valuing more deliberative voices?
I would say that it is. We're not really aware of the extent to which we live in a culture that lionizes the person who seizes the day. So the person who comes to the discussion saying, “You're moving too slowly” tends to feel a kind of moral high ground about their position. The way for introverted technologists to cut through this dynamic is to take the time to explain, in vivid pictorial storytelling terms, what the consequences are of moving too fast. And then for business leaders, on the other hand, to really take the time to listen.
We have this cultural bias to start with. Then, the actual scenarios that the risk-oriented person is worried about don't come to pass that often. So the “seize the day” person comes to believe that they're right. That doesn't mean they won't be wrong in the future, so the more risk-oriented person has a creative challenge: How do I paint this picture as vividly as I can?
This happens with IT security, because serious consequences for not paying attention to it don't occur that often.
Right. I worked on Wall Street, mostly during the '90s, and these were the run-up years to what ended up happening in 2008. I remember the lawyers pointing out the risks and the bankers saying, “No problem.” In that case, it took 10 years for the risks to come to roost.
What do you think distinguishes a leader who happens to be an introvert?
One thing is learning to make the most of their strengths and not trying to transform themselves. Are you a person who builds one-on-one alliances really effectively? Then go and make some one-on-one alliances better than anyone else does. Are you comfortable with social media? Use it to increase your visibility in ways that are comfortable for you. Are you a person who prepares very thoroughly? Use that when you are making a presentation to the company; prepare the hell out of it, the way Steve Jobs did.
On the other hand, introverts have to find the places where they are comfortable stretching themselves and pushing themselves a little bit, while giving themselves the recharge time that they need. If you know you're going to be leading a company meeting for three hours, you make sure you don't schedule something else for the three hours after it. Honoring your temperament enough to do that goes a long way towards preventing burnout and enables you to really stretch when you need to.
Don’t you learn how to do that as you get more experience?
Yes, but there's also a lot that one can do to help people acquire that self-knowledge earlier on. The most unlikely people tell me they've never thought about it before, and then they start free associating and think about all the ways that they do things that aren't comfortable for them. A lot of these people are older, experienced people. They may not have framed the question in this way.
On the other hand, you say that introverts tend not to be groomed as leaders in the first place. Do managers send the message that you have to be an extrovert to succeed?
This is a complex issue. I spent time in Silicon Valley when I was researching my book, and I heard over and over from people that they had gotten that message loud and clear—and that it did not make them happy.
Instead of asking an individual to be someone they're not, ask them to stretch. One of the frameworks I like for management that I talk about in my book is the “Free Trait Agreement.” It's the idea that we all have to stretch outside of our normal temperaments for the sake of our work, but we're going to respect and honor that this is what each of us is doing and allow each other to be inside our own temperaments as much as we can.
These questions go beyond whether you should take a public speaking class. (I think that's useful for everybody.)
Messages get sent in subtler ways, too, like the way offices are set up. In Silicon Valley, people were often working in these very noisy, open plan offices. They would feel they had to wear noise-cancelling headphones just to focus on getting their work done. Or big decisions would be made at meetings and they would think of the right idea after the meeting was over.
We have all these studies showing that more vocally assertive people are not necessarily the ones who have the best ideas; it's random chance, really. So the question is, OK, I have this company full of quiet geniuses—how are they going to work in a way that maximizes their engagement? How am I going to hear their best ideas?
It may not be realistic to redesign a whole office. However, there are things you can do, such as not viewing it as a bad thing when people work from home or they go to a conference room and shut the door. One thing I heard often from people is that it's just a no-no to go off by yourself and get your work done, that it’s seen as not team-oriented.
If you know you’re an introvert, what should you pay more attention to yourself to advance your career?
Cultivate a relationship with your supervisor where you can talk frankly. Find out the specific things you need to do to reach your goal. Many introverts might wait for a formal review and then listen to whatever the manager happens to think of saying. But you want to be more proactive than that.
Schedule follow-up meetings too, to figure out with your supervisor whether you're on track or not. And listen with an open mind to the suggestions that come back to you.
Another thing is that for most introverts, attracting visibility is not their strength or their interest. It feels phony to them. But it's one of those things one has to deal with. Look around for quiet ways to attract visibility and credit for the great work you've been doing. If you're not comfortable establishing your expertise in person in a meeting, maybe you find a way to do it online and you become known as the go-to expert. People start seeking your expertise and suddenly the whole dynamic has changed.
Thirdly, for many introverts, paying attention to corporate politics is not fun at all. But you don’t have to change into a political animal if that's not who you are. You can try to cultivate alliances with people who you sincerely connect with. There usually are plenty of those people around who are either in positions of power or who are great sources of information. If you're good friends with one of those people, that's really all you need.
Because it's not phony to like someone who’s powerful or connected?
Exactly. And in fact, introverts and extroverts tend to be mutually attracted to each other. There's management research showing that the most effective and happiest teams are a mix of introverts and extroverts. So it's likely that an introvert will like some extroverted, connected person in the company. Maybe you have to push yourself a little bit to have lunch with that person instead of sitting at your desk, but it's not that hard a push if it's someone you truly like.
I take this same approach to networking. You go to an industry conference and you think you're supposed to be working the room—and you'd rather be at the dentist. But if you approach that networking event as a series of one-on-one conversations, and if you say to yourself, “All I really need to do is develop three connections with people who I want to keep in touch with,” that's all you need to do. Don't think you have to emerge with a fistful of business cards. The reality is that even if you were the most extroverted person on earth, you probably wouldn't have time to cultivate all those new relationships.
A version of this article, which has been updated, was previously posted on another HPE site.