Introverts' Quick-Start Guide, Part 2
How "the quieter half" successfully tackles teamwork, multitasking, and overtalk
Posted Oct 29, 2014
NA: You say that teamwork is overrated. What do you mean by that?
PV: It’s very important for me to, first, be clear about what I do not mean by it! I do not mean that teamwork is completely unimportant. On the contrary, teamwork is critical to our lives—and not only in the workplace. If you can’t work well on a team, you’re bound to have some problems somewhere along the line, whether it’s in your career or in your family life or elsewhere.
When I say that teamwork is overrated, I’m making a more literal argument—that teamwork is rated too highly. It’s given too much attention, while too little attention is given to working well alone, independently!—which is often the introvert’s natural forte (and preference).
If I’m brutally honest about it, I do my best work alone; always have, always will. I’m very confident that many, if not most, introverts would say the same thing. This mere fact of life for me is not a rejection of teamwork; it’s simply a recognition that, in terms of both confidence and performance, working alone is best where I and other introverts are generally concerned.
I wish that the ability to work independently would be celebrated and valued as much as the ability to work in teams; that’s all. And I also wish that the ability to work independently would be acknowledged as a truly useful skill to be developed and practiced. We have team-building activities, after all, especially on the job. Why not independent work-building activities?
NA: That sounds like a great idea, Peter. To address another introvert preference, you celebrate the idea of focusing on one thing at a time rather than multitasking. As a corollary to that, you value being thorough over being fast. How does that play out for introverts in the workplace?
PV: First of all, I live in the real world—where multitasking and working quickly are an expected and perfectly normal part of life, especially in this day and age in the world of work. But there is a price we pay for both multitasking and speed: We make mistakes, and the quality (of our products or services or ideas) inevitably suffers. People can get hurt, too—physically, psychologically, emotionally.
Of course, we also pay a price for focusing too much on one thing (to the detriment of others) and working too slowly (leaving much undone as a result). I acknowledge that.
All I know is that, as an introvert, I perform best when I can home in on one project or task at a time in some depth, uninterrupted—if only for a few hours before moving on to the next thing (because there will always be a next thing). I can, and should, be balanced about it: I don’t expect to have only one thing to do and days to do it, nor do I demand that people avoid calling, e-mailing, texting, or visiting me. But to the degree that I can control things as an introvert at work, I will control them in favor of one task at a time, and in favor of being methodical versus quick.
NA: I’m right there with you. And while we’re plodding along, what are the problems with interrupting and being interrupted? Are they more problematic for introverts? Is it that we like to listen and be listened to? What survival tactics do you recommend for introverts who work in places where overtalk is the norm?
Let me address the “What’s the problem with being interrupted?” question first and go from there. As an introvert, ideally I get into a “zone” of sorts when I’m deep into a project or task. It’s what author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as flow. Time seems to stand still, I’m doing my best thinking, and I’m running on all cylinders. It takes awhile—maybe an hour or more—to get to this productive place. When a phone call or an email or a text or especially a knock on the door disrupts it, it’s gone! Argh!
I may not be able to return to this creative place following the interruption. Actually, I usually can’t get the feeling back once it’s gone. And so there goes my productivity and performance. It’s not a complete loss of either, but it’s a significant drop.
That’s why I—and most introverts I know—hate being interrupted in the middle of something. And in my own case – having been on the receiving end of frustrating interruptions too many times to count—that’s why I tend not to want to interrupt other people when they appear to be in the middle of something important. I don’t want it done to me, so I try not to do it to others—sort of a modified version of The Golden Rule!
If you’re an introvert who works in an atmosphere where overtalk is the norm, you have to tactfully tell your co-workers and, especially, your boss how you perform best—that is, when there are few, if any, interruptions. The people you work with may not care about how you personally feel (sad, but true). But if you can present your need for uninterrupted time in the context of productivity and performance—that is, “I’ll be able to do more—and better—for the organization if I have _____”—then you will likely find an ear that will listen. You’ll still get what you really need; you’ll just ask for it in a slightly different way than you might otherwise.
NA: What smart advice. On another note, you describe how you don’t typically like to be at the center of attention, yet you would like to be recognized for your contributions. How do you reconcile those thoughts?
PV: I’ll speak for myself, but I’m confident I speak for other introverts too. I don’t want to be singled out for things like my new haircut or a new shirt I’m wearing—things that don’t really have any particular substance other than being new or different. I would rather just blend into the background, with certain exceptions. It’s nice, for example, when my fiancé says I’m looking good!
But when it comes to contributions— especially contributions I’m proud of and/or ones that I think could help the world somehow, if only in the smallest of ways—then I do, indeed, enjoy being recognized. It still doesn’t have to be a big deal. But if I’m in a meeting at work and the boss comments, in front of everyone, that I did something that really helped the organization and/or the people it serves, I feel really good. After all, introvert that I am, I’m not likely to be trumpeting it around the office myself, or putting out some sort of quasi-press release about it. So when someone who matters recognizes and acknowledges something I’ve done, it makes me feel good.
It all boils down to being recognized for what I’ve done or even who I am as a person and professional—instead of being (or at least feeling) unnecessarily spotlighted for something that, to me, is irrelevant.
PV: In the workplace especially, the person who talks very little or not at all – especially in meetings – is too often perceived as non-caring and disengaged. And yet the truth, especially where introverts are concerned, is that the person who talks very little or not at all—again, especially in meetings—is in fact often the most caring, mostengaged person present. He/she is simply listening, taking in information and input, digesting and analyzing and synthesizing in total or near silence. He/she is working, hard, the entire time. In fact, as I write in my book, if I’m an introvert and I’m interacting with you without saying anything, it’s not because I don’t care; it’s because I do.
Extroverts tend to demonstrate their engagement verbally. We introverts tend to demonstrate it nonverbally. But it’s still engagement. And it’s usually deep engagement. It’s anything but non-engagement.
NA: Since you can’t see me smiling right now—totally engaged—I’ll just say, thank you, Peter, for sharing all this food for thought for introverts. It’s nice to know that we’re not alone (except when we want to be!). And, more importantly, thank you for writing The Introvert Manifesto!
© Copyright 2014 Nancy Ancowitz