When it comes to career advancement, it would seem that fortune favors the boisterous: those people (you know the ones!) who can come up with ideas and talk them out quickly, dive into new projects without hesitation, and hold court at every party as if it’s a valuable networking opportunity. While there are absolutely benefits to projecting confidence and assertiveness at work, that doesn’t mean those who are more introverted don’t have a particular set of skills that, while quieter, can be leveraged just as successfully for career success. For introverts, the key is understanding what you have to offer.
Experts differ on what percentage of the population are true introverts, estimating it could be anywhere between 16 and 50 percent of the population. (Paging researchers everywhere: Can we sort this out already?) Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking explores the particular benefit of being an introvert in the digital age. With the advent of technologies that make work something that happens everywhere we go, slow-burn thoughts and honest self-perception sometimes seem to be evaporating. That’s why having these skills can give you a leg up on career competition — assuming you, as an introvert, even see success as a competitive landscape.
Introverts’ Workplace Strengths
Dr. Michael Alcee, a clinical psychologist based in Tarrytown, NY, emphasizes introverts’ unique abilities to think carefully — and differently — in the workplace. “Introverts think deeply, are highly perceptive, and have an uncanny ability to make creative connections. While they may be quiet on the outside, they are buzzing on the inside, synthesizing an enormous amount of material that can bring a work project to a whole new level.” While verbal processing may capture the excitement of your coworkers in the midst of project planning, introverts often have an intuition for hurdles in execution and can foresee the logistical complications of putting a plan into action. That means you can be the person who troubleshoots a plan even while it’s still in its nascent phases — and that’s invaluable. When the rapid-fire energy of a conference-room planning session has everyone else in a frenzy, quietly taking notes and keeping track of the nuts and bolts of new ideas can still make you a standout contributor.
Beyond being the de facto troubleshooters in group projects, introverts can also tap into their capacity to understand the nature of workplace relationships from an outside perspective. By becoming a universal ally who doesn’t seek to undercut other people’s ideas or steal attention from other coworkers, you’re playing for keeps; loyalty, trust, and thoughtfulness aren’t just qualities of a wonderful friend but are the building blocks of team players who can pivot into leadership roles. You might not be the one people go to for water-cooler conversation or the latest office gossip, but in the long term, that’s a good thing. Dr. Alcee put it this way: “Introverts hate small talk, but mostly because it doesn’t get deep enough for them. Introverts love to swim in the depths and engage ideas on a really substantial level. This is an amazing strength and can help support a group with digging in deeper, whether it’s a work group or in a relationship.” While it can be exhausting to be constantly cheering on the other people that you interact with, offering positive feedback and a noncritical acceptance of your coworkers will pay off when it’s promotion time.
Embracing Your Introversion
Instead of trying to exchange naturally introverted personality traits for bigger, louder, more attention-getting tactics, get comfortable with your tendencies. Nurture and protect them. By embracing the person you already are, you’ll be able to better address your needs and enjoy yourself at work, which is a key component of earning positive attention. Whether you’re in a profession more suited to introversion (Dr. Alcee cites teaching, social work, and the clergy as a few obvious fits for introverted people) or practicing in a more traditionally “extroverted” field like law or PR, you can lean in to what you have to offer. Protecting your personal space for fledgling ideas, skipping out on work events when you’re feeling drained, and making sure that not all of your projects involve other people are some ways that you can feel good about the way that you work.
Setting boundaries with coworkers so that you don’t feel “bossed around” or controlled can be difficult, especially if your introversion manifests as shyness or meekness around more gregarious people. Remember that there’s nothing wrong with needing space — and that making more room for who you are makes the workplace better for everybody. Start by cutting back on your apologies, then move toward setting real boundaries through firm, clear, and documented written cues. An introvert’s tendency to fall into passive-aggressive habits in workplace interactions is one pitfall you should do your best to avoid.
“In a fast-paced and frenetic culture plagued by technological distractions, introverts remind all of us to slow down and take time to renew ourselves by going inward,” Dr. Alcee points out. Introverts are fully capable of great accomplishment and significant leadership, and the world is catching on. While it may seem counterintuitive to parlay your quieter side into career success, what seems like a weakness may actually be one of the strongest things you have to offer.
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