We all know the stereotypes about introverts and extroverts. While wildly exaggerated, introverts are often viewed as shy, timid bookworms who avoid parties like the plague, while extroverts are seen as outgoing social butterflies who dominate conversations and never seem to slow down.
Real people are much more complicated than these over-the-top clichés. But introversion and extroversion are real—there’s science to back it up. Introverts and extroverts have their own unique strengths, but the problem is that most workplaces are designed for extroverts, rewarding the social, high-energy behaviors on which they thrive.
In or out of the workplace, cooperation and communication are challenging—especially for people with very different personalities. Extroverts might be used to the spotlight, but if they take the time to understand and support their introverted colleagues, they’ll discover many wonderful qualities that make them valuable members of a team.
In this article, we’ll break down what you need to know about introverts, what they need in the workplace, and how us extroverts can best support them—so we can all work together to accomplish amazing things.
What Makes an Introvert, Introverted?
To collaborate better with our introverted colleagues, let’s start by understanding them!
Overall, introverts prefer less stimulating environments and have less of a need for social interaction. They seek out solitude, and tend to maintain fewer (but still close and intimate) personal relationships. Unlike people who are shy or struggle with social anxiety, introverts don’t fear social interaction—they just don’t react to it in the same way that extroverts do.
This isn’t a question of personal preference. Introverts’ and extroverts’ brains are actually different, both in how they’re built and how they behave.
Introverts’ brains show higher cortical arousal, meaning that they process more sensory information from their surroundings. They’re very perceptive, and more sensitive to details about their environment like color, light, and background noise. This is why introverts can become overwhelmed by high-activity settings and social situations—for them, it’s information overload.
Introverts’ brains also don’t respond to other people like extroverts’ do. In one study, introverts reacted to pictures of human faces and flowers in a similar way, while extroverts had a much stronger, positive response to images of people.
There are also vast differences in the situations and activities that each type pulls energy from. For example, extroverts often feel energized in environments full of people and stimulation, while introverts leave those same scenarios feeling depleted. Instead, introverts often need the absence of stimulation in order to recharge.
There are also physical differences between extroverts’ and introverts’ brains. Specifically, introverts have more gray matter in their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that handles abstract thought and decision-making. This could give introverts an advantage at writing, a key component of which is processing abstract thought.
What Do Introverts Need In The Workplace?
It’s one thing to understand introverts better—but how can you apply this knowledge to the workplace? Let’s start by explaining introverts’ general workplace needs.
Privacy And Downtime
Because introverts can become overwhelmed by social interaction (and stimulation in general), it’s very important for them to take time out of their day to recharge in calm, low-stimulating environments. For example, your introverted colleague might put on headphones and sit alone at lunch, go for a walk with their coffee solo, or share less dog memes on the company Slack channel.
This doesn’t mean your colleague hates you, hates their job, or is antisocial. If you’re an extrovert, you might be tempted to try and include your introverted coworker by inviting them to sit with you, tagging them in that meme, or joining them on their walk. Your intentions are good—you’re trying to do for your coworker what you know would cheer you up. But spending time alone doesn’t mean an introvert is unhappy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—they’re practicing self-care. By taking some time out, they’re giving themselves what they need to feel happy and calm at work.
Peace And Quiet
The science is clear—distracting background noise is bad for everyone’s productivity. But it can be particularly hard for introverts because they’re so closely attuned to their environment.
To do their best work, introverts often need a calm, peaceful workspace that’s free of distractions. These can include music, radio, sounds coming from a colleague’s phone or computer, and the biggest productivity killer of all: intermittent speech, or short, irregular bits of conversation.
Unfortunately, these are very common types of background noise in a typical office—and extroverts are often the culprits (sorry to call you out like that).
One major advantage of remote work is the control it gives people over their environment, meaning this should be less of an issue on a distributed team. But regardless of how you’re working, if you want to support your introverted teammate, respecting their need for quiet is a good place to start.
Time To Think
Putting an introvert on the spot is not the answer! As we explained above, introverts process a higher volume of sensory information per second than extroverts do. This is why they can come across as quiet—they need time to respond to their surroundings and get their thoughts in order before speaking.
Don’t try to bring your introverted colleague out of their shell by singling them out in meetings, or springing last-minute plans on them unannounced. They may not feel ready to respond under those circumstances, and may feel pressured or stressed-out.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give introverts opportunities to share. In fact, you’ll miss out on thoughtful, deeply considered insights if you don’t create space for their contributions.
Before expecting introverts to speak up or interact with others, make sure they have enough of time to prepare themselves and think through what they’re going to say. We’ll go over some more specific strategies in the next section.
Permission To Be Themselves
Finally, introverts must be able to be themselves in the workplace without feeling judged. Really, this is true for everyone—but it’s especially relevant to introverts, because many workplaces are designed around extroversion.
No one wants to feel like the “office odd one out” because they like to eat lunch alone, or worry that their manager thinks they aren’t paying attention if they don’t speak up as often in meetings. When teammates and managers trust that introverts aren’t timid, uninformed, or antisocial, they set the stage for them to shine as brilliant, valuable members of their team.
How Can Extroverts Support Introverts At Work?
Quiet, downtime, personal space—these all sound like reasonable requests. But what do they look like in action? Here are some ways to make workplaces a little more welcoming to your introverted team members.
Meetings center around social interaction, they can pop up unannounced, and the goal is often fast, intuitive collaboration—for many introverts, they’re the most challenging part of their workday.
But with some consideration, it is possible to make meetings more productive and comfortable for introverts.
Start by planning meetings well in advance, rather than springing them on anyone at the last minute. When you schedule the meeting, make sure it has a clear agenda and share it with everyone in writing, along with any relevant documents or reading that will be discussed.
Dedicate time at the end of the meeting to hear from everyone who hasn’t spoken, so that introverts don’t need to try to get a word in around their extroverted colleagues.
This approach gives introverts time to get a handle on what will be discussed and prepare themselves so they don’t get overwhelmed in the moment. Because they know they’ll have a chance to contribute, they can carefully prepare some thoughts and trust that they will be heard. Being able to plan ahead for social interaction also makes it easier for them to schedule a buffer of quiet time afterwards to unwind.
Workspaces That Work For Everyone
There are many ways to make sure your workspace supports the kind of quiet and downtime introverts crave, but still feels comfortable for the extroverted members of your team.
The most obvious technique is to create designated quiet spaces within a physical office. This could look like a separate area of the break room that’s intended for quiet relaxation rather than socializing, or setting up workstations that are more separated from the rest of the space.
But changing up the design of your office is a pretty big task—and what happens if you’re working remotely? Luckily, there are plenty of other ways to create privacy, and they don’t need to be elaborate or expensive.
For example, you and your introverted colleague could agree on a cue that they need space, such as “if I’m wearing my noise-cancelling headphones, that means I need uninterrupted time to myself” or “I will set my Slack mode to ‘away’ when I need to focus.”
You could also ask your manager about blocking out times during which everyone will work more quietly. In particular, limiting when meetings are held, such as keeping them to the afternoons, or even designating one full meeting-less day during the week, can go a long way towards getting introverts the peace they need to recharge. And who knows, the rest of your team might enjoy it, too!
Communicating With Introverts (Quietly)
Written communication is great for introverts. Not only do they tend to express themselves better this way, but it gives them time to think without being put on the spot.
Of course, introverts are individuals, and they don’t all have the same preferences. But it’s worth asking your introverted colleague if they’d prefer to communicate in writing, such as by Slack or email. This might prove less disruptive or draining to their workflow than phone calls, unprompted conversations, or popping into their office unannounced.
Brainstorming is another activity that should be approached mindfully for introverts at work. Competing with other voices and calling out ideas in a stream-of-consciousness way is pretty much the opposite of how introverts like to communicate. And as common as brainstorming is for many workplaces, it might not even be the best way to get good ideas out of your team!
Instead, try ‘brainwriting’ or ‘electronic brainstorming.’ These techniques allow people to contribute anonymously in writing, so they put much less pressure on introverts than typical brainstorming sessions.
Give Introverts Flexibility
If introverts have flexibility around their working conditions and schedule, it’s easier for them to create the conditions that will let them do their best work.
Flexibility is good for many workers, but it might require a higher degree of trust from an introvert’s teammates and managers. That’s because their ideal working conditions might involve working from home more often, working with less supervision (such as coming in early or staying late), or even opting for an asynchronous meeting every now and then.
An introvert’s colleagues need to trust that they’re still getting work done, and that they’re making these choices for the good of the team—not because they’re checked out or lazy.
Establishing trust doesn’t happen overnight. But once an introvert’s coworkers understand them well enough to grant some autonomy, the results can be truly incredible.
Introverts and Extroverts, Working Together
Collaborating with people who are different from you is part of what makes work so exciting—and it can be very rewarding to find ways to bring out the best in each other.
Because introverts tend to get overlooked and misunderstood, they’re often full of great ideas that are just waiting to be put into action. If extroverts and introverts get to know what it takes to support one another, they can create a team that’s stronger than the sum of its parts. All it takes is some patience, understanding, and a willingness to appreciate the quieter side of life.