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Introverts are a misunderstood bunch. They're often seen as standoffish, shy or lacking ideas, and can have trouble fitting into today's bustling and open workplaces. But just because they're not calling out ideas or showing up at happy hour after work doesn't mean they're not valuable team players or future business leaders.

Consider this: the best-known introvert today is President Barack Obama. He can deliver a phenomenal speech so long as it's been prepared in advance. But off-the-cuff responses? Not so good. What’s more, Jennifer Kahnweiler, an executive coach and author estimates that 40% of today's business executives are introverted.

"Extroverts are more likely to connect with people and get their energy from being around people," said Meredith Persily Lamel, an executive in residence at American University's Kogod School of Business. "Obama needs his alone time and family time."

At face value, extroverts might seem like the more obvious choice when it comes to hiring, but introverts outshine their more gregarious peers in many aspects.

"When they do talk, their thoughts tend to be better formulated," Lamel said. "Extroverts put their foot in their mouth more. Extroverts may tend to think better on their feet, but are more likely to say something they'd regret."

So what are the key characteristics of introverts, and how can their strengths be allowed to shine through the hubbub created by their more extroverted counterparts? Lamel gave a few tips for managing the office introvert:

Be Comfortable with Silence

Just because they're not the first to speak, doesn't mean the ideas aren't churning around in their brains. They're also not likely to speak over extroverts who are more comfortable with a dynamic, free-wheeling conversation where people talk over and interrupt each other. According to Lamel, it's important for managers to moderate the conversation so that introverts are given the chance to speak up and contribute their thoughts. Encourage them to share their thoughts, positively reinforce their contribution and let them have the last word on occasion. 

Give Them Space

"Solitude matters, and for some people, it is the air that they breathe," said Susan Cain, the author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” in her TED talk, "The Power of Introverts," which has been viewed more than four million times. "We have known for centuries about the transcendent power of solitude. It's only recently that we've strangely begun to forget it," she said.

Both mentally and physically, introverts need more space to reflect on their thoughts and prepare for social situations. More independent work and a less social workspace are ideal. "Are you energized by a room full of people, or does that exhaust you?" Lamel asked. "When feeling a lack of energy, do you spend time by yourself to recuperate or surround yourself with external stimuli? Introverts need to mentally prepare for things a bit more."

Clarify Roles and Expectations

Because introverts are often tentative to overstep their bounds, they may not show the same type of public initiative as extroverts. Setting clear roles and expectations and providing more structured meeting environments allow introverts to step up and take the reins on their own terms.

"The more freedom we give introverts to be themselves, the more likely they are to come up with their own unique solutions," Cain said.

 

Photo credit: Can Stock