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It's no secret that our culture tends to prize outgoing, social individuals—both in and out of the workplace—more than the quiet and thoughtful types. But, as authors like Susan Cain have argued recently, introverts bring incredible value to companies, and managers might be ignoring them at their own peril.

We talked with Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, Ph.D., an Atlanta-based author, international speaker and consultant, about the role and needs of introverts in the workplace. Her bestselling books, The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength and Quiet Influence: The Introvert's Guide to Making a Difference have been translated into 14 languages. She is currently at work on a new book about the workplace dynamics between introverts and extroverts, due to be released this summer.

What do introverts bring to the table that extroverts cannot?

Introverts have a lot of strengths. They're incredible listeners and are very good at observation. Plus they get their energy from within, so they are able to have extended quiet time when they can take those observations and come up with ideas that are of very high value. They go for depth versus breadth, something that is true in both relationships and work projects. Extroverts tend to have a lot going on in the office, whereas introverts like to dive deep into a project. That's a real strength when you want to get quality output from people.

Why do we need to think about introverts' role in the workplace in a new way?

Our culture and our workplaces are very “type A”. Particularly in Western society, the whole culture, not just within the office, is geared toward people who speak first, sell themselves or are more expressive. Introverts get talked over as a result. The bottom line, from an HR standpoint, is that we are missing out on the full value of between 40-60 percent of our workplace population. If [employers] are not tapping into the whole spectrum of their talent, it affects their bottom lines.

What advice would you give to HR professionals for dealing with introverted recruits or employees?

When you are recruiting, as an HR person you have to be self-aware enough to not project your own expectations on recruits. For example, if one of the company's values is to have a lot of energy, the energy of an introvert might not look the same as an extrovert's.

HR professionals can really encourage managers to see that if they want to get the best out of their employees, they really have to understand this whole dimension of introversion. People often say to me: “My boss expects me to be really outgoing like him. How do I get him to understand that I'm not like that?” Bosses are usually not purposely trying to make your life hard. They just don't know that when you take a break or say you need time to think about something, it's not because you are not being a team player, it's just what you need.

How can managers alter the workplace to help introverts thrive?

Depending on how strong of an introverted tendency they have, introverts usually say there are two critical factors [to thriving in the workplace].

First, that they get a chance to lead the way that plays to their strengths. That might mean having smaller meetings. The second thing is they need time to recharge and decompress, and then they can come back again with great ideas. Give them space and give them time to think about things. If introverts don't get a chance to be alone they can get really stressed out. Just like extroverts get stressed out if they are alone too much.

You've written about the needs of introverted women in the workplace. What are the unique difficulties of this group, as opposed to introverted men?

It's a double whammy—being a woman and an introvert. These are both positions of less dominance in the workplace. The biggest challenge for introverted women is that, as a woman, there is an expectation to be friendly and smiling and to easily establish a rapport with people. Introverted women don't naturally find that so easy to do. They usually have to work at it and they might seem comfortable doing it, but they are never actually comfortable in that role.

That's where HR can really come in handy—they can start discussions and take the elephant out of the room to get people talking about some of the biases that exist. The more we can name these challenges and these differences, the more we can get past them.

Photo: Creative Commons