You are here

Resilience at work: how to give introverts what they need

Published 20th June 2017 by Investors in People
Introverts and extroverts

There’s a revolution going on: society is finally recognising the needs and contributions of introverts. We have Susan Cain to thank, for sure, but there are other forces at play too, including a shift away from extraverted behaviours in what we perceive to be desirable in leaders.

Where someone sits on the introversion/extraversion scale is seen as one of the Big Five personality traits. Introverts and extroverts have different needs and motivations and organisations are slowly realising that a one-size-fits-all approach to job design and employee experience will not work

But before we get into the topic, we do need to start with a health warning: all human beings are different and most will display a mixture of both extraversion and introversion. The aim of this post is not to label people, but to help HR develop a high-quality resilience strategy that offers solutions to both introverts and extroverts. This is difficult unless you understand the specific needs of introverts.

With that out the way, here are five things you need to be aware of when helping introverts become more resilient at work:

They may be more affected by forced emotional displays

Many jobs require us to act in a certain way to get results. Customer service is the obvious example: you need to be positive, engaging and customer-focused. But there’s evidence this comes at a cost: forcing yourself to show specific emotions, known as ‘surface acting,’ can increase rates of emotional exhaustion, work-family conflict and insomnia.

Encouraging a culture of healthy authenticity - rather than emotional compliance - can help prevent employees from needing to surface act. To mitigate the effects of surface acting, building resilience is crucial for all employees. It’s important to note, however, that surface acting is likely to put a greater strain on introverts than extroverts, which means they might need longer to recover.

They may have distinct environmental needs

Although progress has been made in designing work environments that suit varied personality types, we’re still in the throes of the open plan era. These tend to have common characteristics, such as heightened background noise, unplanned and unexpected interruptions, regular interpersonal interaction, a lack of privacy and sustained stimuli from technology, such as phones ringing.

Although all employees are at risk of becoming frazzled from this type of environment, introverts are more sensitive to it and are therefore more likely to get frazzled. They may also take longer to recover. Failing to take time out to recover can lead to irritability, a fall in productivity and a reduction in the quality of interpersonal interactions.

Quiet spaces for contemplation and concentration (two key work-based tasks we all need to do, but that introverts may display a preference for) are becoming a hallmark of modern, psychologically-informed office design. If you employ introverts, providing these spaces is essential to resilience, as it allows introverts to recover from high-stimuli environments and come back refreshed.

Their daily patterns of creating and sustaining energy may be different

Organisations must help employees create and sustain energy levels because so much about modern work - and in fact modern life - is draining. Our reliance on technology doesn’t help in this regard. So creating and sustaining energy is a key part of resilience. Human beings can’t just go on and on without recuperation.

But introverts and extroverts recuperate and build energy in different ways. Again, these are generalisations based on the extremes of the introvert/extrovert spectrum, but extroverts are drained of energy by being alone, by quiet, by a lack of emotional stimulation. They recuperate by occupying - and engaging with - social spaces. The opposite is true of introverts: too much social stimulation is exhausting. They require silence, solitude and their own thoughts to recuperate.

This could play out in many ways in the workplace: after a long, collaborative project, throwing a party so that people can ‘let their hair down’ could be great for extroverts, but for introverts it may raise stress levels. HR and managers should be aware that peer pressure can make it difficult for introverts to do what comes naturally in these situations.

In terms of flexible working, an introvert’s pattern may differ, for example a greater need to work from home after long periods of office-based project work. An introvert may also favour starting earlier (when the office is quiet) and finishing earlier.

The ‘technology problem’ may be magnified

The amount of technology we use in our everyday working lives is increasing significantly and its negative impact on our mental wellbeing has become clear. We’ve covered eresilience in the workplace - or how to increase our resilience to technology-induced burnout - in the past and it’s an area of growing interest to organisations.

While all employees facing increased technology use need to focus on building resilience in order to stay productive and reduce the effects of a ‘frazzled mind’ on their work and personal lives, over-stimulation is particularly detrimental to introverts, so they are likely to be hit harder.

Education on how to manage technology should therefore be a priority for managers and HR building resilience in introverted employees.

It may be harder for line managers to identify what they need to recuperate

It’s a myth that introverts don’t like people: in fact, many introverts are fascinated by people. But they may not display the outward signs of social agreeability that we (mistakenly) think are the only proof that we are enjoying a social occasion. Introverts can enjoy social occasions without speaking or taking part in the conversation.

This illustrates a wider point: it may be harder to read how an introvert is feeling. Where perhaps an extrovert would be visibly angry, or depressed, or have a bite to their tone, introverts may be less likely to externalise their feelings. In effect, they suffer silently.

Busy line managers could easily miss a struggling introvert if they are simply scanning their team for obvious, externalised signs of stress. They must therefore be more proactive in identifying low energy levels, stress, fatigue and burnout in introverts.