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How to make more of your people’s hidden talents

The outspoken people in your meetings are producing great ideas. But what about the ones taking more of a back seat? It may be time to change the way you work to give them an opportunity to shine too.

Examine modern working culture – from social media debates to boardrooms bouncing with outspoken opinions – and you’d be forgiven for thinking the only way to get ahead is to be the one doing all the talking. Outwardly ambitious, charismatic go-getters have long been in the limelight, while those with more introverted tendencies have often been overshadowed.

Psychologist Carl Jung coined the term “introverted” in the 1920s. His basic distinction was that extroverts were energised by social interactions, while introverts found them exhausting. He also made it clear that no such thing as a pure extrovert or introvert exists, and each of us in fact sits on a spectrum.

However, the term introvert today has still become synonymous with behaviours including being shy, stand-offish or uncomfortable with interaction. And while not all of these introverted assumptions are true, it’s fair to say that people who are quieter tend to keep their ideas closer to their chests and are generally more uncomfortable in ‘over stimulating environments’.

But people with these personality traits also display a huge wealth of natural skills that many businesses would benefit from, which just aren’t being recognised. Indeed, some of the greatest political and business leaders including Bill Gates, Barack Obama and Eleanor Roosevelt are all notorious introverts who’ve built lauded public careers on their natural strengths.

A world that can't stop talking

Luckily, things look set to change. Just as some people are beginning to turn their backs on loud platforms like Facebook and reacquaint themselves with the delights of privacy, so too is the world of business leaning towards a subtler way of working. For the past couple of years, author (and self-professed introvert) Susan Cain has been leading a quiet revolution, even going as far as saying the world is “poised on the brink of dramatic change when it comes to solitude”.

Cain’s critically acclaimed book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking, and its accompanying TED Talk, have made waves with a powerful and salient point: attempting to get introverts to act like extroverts simply doesn't work, and is well and truly missing the point.

Instead she puts forward the argument that workplaces and people management practice can be redesigned to allow greater independence, more unplugging from machines and wider room for private epiphanies, in order to tap in to the vast natural strengths of quieter individuals.

Unpack your suitcase

Throughout her work Cain calls on the analogy of the suitcase. This is what you take with you on your journey through life, a metaphor for the experiences, memories, activities and thoughts that make you unique. It’s important for everyone to stop and take stock of what’s in their suitcase, and to let others in to share it. Cain’s message is that the world needs the things that we’re all carrying in our individual suitcases. And the businesses we work in do too.

Ultimately it’s all about investing more time, increasing the attention you give and adapting your working practices to support and nurture the subtler behaviours and skills in your people. It will open up endless opportunities for your business to grow.