Introverts have a bad rep as socially awkward, shy, people-haters. That’s not exactly a good match-up of attributes for being a successful manager. I’ve spent most of my career as a computer programmer, a field that is not exactly known for being filled with gregarious extroverts. Before becoming a manager, I really questioned whether I would be happy and successful in a role that requires so much interaction with others. Thankfully, I’ve learned over time that there’s a big difference between the common myths of being an introvert and the realities. And, once I understood the realities, I learned how to better manage my energy levels to be a better manager. Here are some strategies for an introvert to keep their batteries charged during the workday to help be a great manager.
So, what’s an introvert?
The single resource that most helped me understand what introverts are is Susan Cain’s book “QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” (If you want the “a picture is worth 1,000 words” view, another funny–yet spot-on–explanation of introversion is this picture by artist Roman Jones. I call his diagram “Care and Feeding of Your Introvert.”)
Susan Cain also has an excellent TED Talk called “The Power of Introverts.” In it, she explains that being an introvert isn’t the same as being shy. Shyness is a fear of social interaction or judgment. Where a person falls on the introvert/extrovert spectrum is more a matter of how they respond to social stimulation. Extroverts love large amounts of social interaction. It charges their batteries. Introverts, on the other hand, are drained by interaction with others. As Cain describes in her TED Talk, “introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments.” (Note that these aren’t absolute rules. Nobody is this way all the time. And, nobody is entirely an introvert or an extrovert either. It’s more of a spectrum.)
A Day in the Life of the Introvert Manager
In Susan Cain’s TED Talk, she says, “interesting research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School has found that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do, because when they are managing proactive employees, they’re much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas, whereas an extrovert can, quite unwittingly, get so excited about things that they’re putting their own stamp on things, and other people’s ideas might not as easily then bubble up to the surface.”
See, introverted managers are an asset! But, consider the typical day for a manager. Many workplaces (especially in the technology industry) are set up as large, open floor-plan buildings. Desks are clustered together with minimal dividers, to encourage collaboration and discussion. Managers spend most of their day answering questions, attending meetings, and directing others. A typical day for a manager is lots of interactions with people in a open workspace, which is an energy drain. An introverted manager must use strategies to charge their batteries throughout the day.
Here’s my version of work hell: non-stop meetings all day with a group lunch and social activities after work. I know this day will be filled with interactions with people, which can be draining to those of the introverted persuasion. I will have limited time for solitary thought, when I can best process information. I’ll face many interruptions, as even a few minutes of downtime between meetings will likely be consumed by folks asking me questions. In this type of day, I’m likely to become irritable, tired, impatient, and burned out.
Yet, this is what I signed up for by becoming a manager! Our days are often filled collaborating with others to solve problems, keeping our teams productive, and guiding others to produce the best work possible for our company. Therefore, the key to success is using strategies to maintain your energy.
Game plan for the introvert manager’s day
I’ve found that the most important thing for me is to keep tabs on my energy levels and how I’m feeling. When I start to feel drained or irritable, that’s my warning flag that I need to recharge. If I don’t and push on instead, then things get worse. I can’t effectively lead and motivate others (aka do my job well) when I feel exhausted and prickly.
Prepare for my workday as part of my morning routine
I typically check my work email and instant messages from my mobile phone in the morning when getting ready for work. Why? Because this allows me to know what people need from me before I get to the office. During my getting-ready-for-work routine, I can process this information and think through what I need to do about it. Brushing my teeth doesn’t require much brainpower or talking to others. My mind can focus on the work problems at hand and I can determine how I want to solve them when I get to work.
Schedule in some solo thinking time
One way I start my workday out on a good foot is that I spend some time alone planning my day. I arrive at work before most others do. As long as there is nothing requiring my urgent attention, I’ll sneak off to a secluded location and plan out what I need to accomplish that day. (Remember, I’ve already checked my email and instant messages before coming to work. So, I know if there’s a dumpster fire.)
Planning out your day in the morning may work well for you. You may also find that spending a small chunk of time by yourself during the day is a good way to break through a lingering problem you otherwise haven’t been able to solve. Here are some suggestions.
- Book an appointment on your calendar. This is a commitment you’re making to yourself. And, others will know you’re unavailable during this time.
- Limit your time away to encourage focus. As a manager, others depend on you to answer questions and remove blockers to keep teams moving. Therefore, you don’t have the luxury of endless hours to spend as you choose. Limit your meeting time and the problem you’re trying to solve in that time. This will encourage your focus and minimize the temptation for distraction. In my case, if I only allot ½ hour to come up with a daily plan, I’m not going to spend 5 minutes getting distracted by checking my email or watching a YouTube video.
- Schedule time away when it’s least disruptive to people that rely on you. Whenever possible, be available to others. That’s why I typically arrive at work before most of my co-workers and do my daily planning then: nobody else is around to miss me. If you do need to get away for some strategic thinking time during the day, always let your team know how you’re reachable in an emergency!
Get in a quick solo break
My employer lists “Be Healthy” as one of our core principles. This philosophy ties in well with a strategy that several folks around the office utilize: take a few minutes to go for a walk outside. Even in the Indianapolis winter, you can bundle up and take a brisk 10 minute walk to clear your head, remove distractions, and process what’s running through your mind.
If you need more time than a quick walk to get your mojo back, take a solo lunch away from your desk. (AWAY from your desk! I have a bad habit of sitting at my desk and working through lunch which tends to not be very rejuvenating.) Weather permitting, sitting outside at a picnic table is awesome. Alas, it’ll be many months before I can do that again.
After work, get time to yourself
I’ve found that one of the most important things I can do after a long workday with lots of interactions with people is to have some time to myself. If I have something like a work-related meetup right after work, I’ll hide away in a meeting room with a book and read for a while. (Conference rooms, that scarce workplace commodity, are often bookable at 5:00 or 5:30 p.m.) This time to recharge gets me ready for my after-hours event.
Even if I’m heading home right after work, I’ve learned that I need some alone time. My patient partner, an extrovert, has learned that I need just 10-15 minutes to myself upon getting home. I can’t “be present” and hear about his day yet as soon as I step in the door. If the house is on fire, he can let me know…otherwise, let’s talk later. After just a few minutes in my cozy office, I’m ready to re-enter the world and talk about our days.
Get in your “think time” after hours, when needed
I’m writing this blog post on the weekend, when I’m away from distractions and interruptions. That environment is great for allowing me to think. Similarly, you may find that your best time to think about big problems at work are in mornings or evenings when you are out of the office. You don’t have your typical day-to-day distractions. Even a few minutes of thought may be enough time for you to come up with some good strategies. Jot down some notes what you want to implement in the office on your next workday. In the interest of keeping a healthy work-life balance, I’m not advocating hours upon hours of work during your home time. But, spending some home time thinking about a particular problem at work can allow you to reach a breakthrough that you’re not able to see at work, when distractions are present.
Use these strategies to embrace your introverted self, and keep being awesome!
Extroverts typically have personalities that make them more outgoing and noticeable in the workplace. However, introverts have their own strengths that make them great managers as well. If you’re an introvert, learn what your triggers are that will drain your energy throughout the day. Use these tips to combat that fatigue to stay at your best. If you have strategies of your own that you use, leave a comment on this post and let me know!
If you need more inspiration and understanding about what introversion means, watch Susan Cain’s awesome TED Talk “The Power of Introverts.” Bill Gates named it one of his all-time favorite TED Talks.