Helping an Introvert Find Her Way: A Management Success Story

I had finally gotten the big promotion I’d always wanted. It was my tenth year at a big healthcare company. My first seven years were spent as a Six Sigma Black Belt (aka project manager). My new title was Master Black Belt (or, for those not familiar with Six Sigma, manager of project managers). For the first time in my career, I was managing people. Well, one person: Joan.

Joan had risen up through the ranks of the company—from call center representative to analyst to project manager. Her employee file was filled with glowing comments from supervisors, who clearly saw her potential for growth. Despite her numerous accomplishments, however, Joan wasn’t happy.  

A big part of a project manager’s job is leading meetings. Most of the meetings in our division were on the phone with people in three or four locations. Even more challenging, there might be five people in one room and seven people individually calling in. For Joan, it was exhausting keeping such a large group focused and on task. She became quiet; others spoke over her; and side conversations began. Sensing her discomfort, a higher level manager sometimes took over the meetings, leaving Joan hard-pressed to regain control.

I thought I could help her become more comfortable. Joan, I believed, just needed a good agenda and some public speaking classes. I suggested that she read How to Make Friends and Influence People or attend a Dale Carnegie workshop. We rehearsed meetings together, and I simulated difficult situations so that she could become more comfortable addressing them. We discussed nonverbal cues, and I recommended that she watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about body language. Still, her comfort level did not improve.

It was around this time that I met Linzi.  Linzi worked in our IT department, managing our lab computer system, and she was bored. She wanted a career in project management and asked me for a small project and some mentoring. After checking with her boss to make sure it would work with her schedule, I scoped out a three-month long project for her to complete. I taught her how to document her progress; however, I did not need to teach her how to communicate with leadership—she did that naturally on her own. Within days, Linzi was fearlessly speaking to all levels of management necessary to move her project forward. She loved the role of project manager—so much so that she started looking for a project management job.

Shortly thereafter, it was time for mid-year reviews. I sat down with Joan, and we talked about what she liked and did not like about her job. She shared with me how much she enjoyed working independently on documentation tasks and analytical problem-solving. Not surprisingly, however, she found leading project meetings stressful and exhausting. She felt drained and unhappy at the end of each day.   

Joan needed something different. I thought about what I had learned from Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking, and The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. I knew that I needed to help her play toward her strengths. Our meeting ended with me trying to figure out a way to make that happen.

As I drove home that night, I thought about Joan and how she might find higher job satisfaction. She would be great in an IT job…just like Linzi’s. I thought about Linzi and how she was bored in her IT job and loved the taste of project management so much that she had begun looking for other positions.  

And that’s when the solution hit me: Joan and Linzi should trade jobs.

The next day, I shared the idea with Joan, and she loved it. She could sit in a quiet part of the building, answer emails, and create worklists all day. No more meetings. No more trying to herd a bunch of type-A personalities. It fit her perfectly.

I spoke with HR and upper management about my proposed solution. I described Joan’s strengths as an introvert and explained how her skill set would be perfect for Linzi’s position. I told them about Linzi’s unhappiness as an extrovert trapped in a job with little human interaction. With this one change, we could create two happy and successful employees. Luckily, everyone supported my idea.

The following week, Joan, Linzi, and I went out to lunch to talk about switching jobs. Both of them were thrilled. That same day, Joan moved her desk to sit next to Linzi, and the cross-training began. Three weeks later, the transition was complete.

Today, Joan loves her new job and feels like she is in the right place and heading in the right direction. Linzi has a mountain of project management skills to learn, and she is working hard and loving it. Both women are extremely happy to be in positions that match their strengths and personality characteristics, bring them job satisfaction, and are likely to lead to further career success.

Matching Joan’s and Linzi’ personality strengths to their job responsibilities proved to me that a successful manager has to do more than divvy up the work. It’s about getting the most out of your team while paying attention to all of an employee’s strengths and aligning those strengths with the right position.

Share your thoughts.

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  • Valerie Midkiff

    I enjoyed this article because it points out that we all function best when our jobs match our innate way of being. I returned to teaching after many years of homeschooling. I’m half-time at two elementary schools in the ESL dept. (English as a Second Language Learners). I chose it because I get to work with 6-8 kids at a time.

    What is draining though is the fact that most ESL teachers are put into a team atmosphere where two or three are teaching in the same room. The noise drains me even when our classroom management skills are working. Just the fact that there are three voices going at once is too much and I can see it the eyes of my introverted students.

    I took some of my students to the library for a read aloud where it could be quiet. These kids were all sleepy or fidgety. I think about them all day long at community style tables instead of desks with all the push toward collaboration and talking to your neighbor. No wonder they are tired or distracted.

    Not only are students asked to constantly collaborate and work in groups, teachers are also asked to do this. While some of this is fine and healthy for us all, how do we balance it by having some quiet parts of the day? I try to work quietly at my desk, but there is too much talking and interruptions. If I eat in my car, my coworkers think I’m having a bad day. If I go for a walk, then my other coworker will wonder why we aren’t walking together. LOL!

    I’d like to find some quiet in my day for me and especially my introverted students!

    • Valerie Midkiff

      Oh, and I wanted to add that I really do enjoy all of my co-workers and students. 🙂

  • Leatrice Oram

    I am always glad to see more articles on introversion and the workplace. I am also supportive of finding work for people that best suits their strengths and needs. And how great that both employees ended up feeling more comfortable in the work they were assigned. However, this is where the but comes in. Joan is depicted as a passive person overwhelmed by a specific kind of task of leading remote teams. Adam’s intervention is textbook telling introverts to act more extraverted to be successful. Research (see Zelenski, Santoro, & Whelan’s 2012 study, “Would Introverts Be Better Off if They Acted More Like Extraverts? Exploring Emotional and Cognitive Consequences of Counterdispositional Behavior”) shows the deleterious effects (for extraverts, too) of this approach. Also, Grant, Gino and Hofmann (2011, “Reversing the extraverted leadership advantage: The role of employee proactivity”) also show counter-indications. they study found that introverts are better leaders for extraverted, proactive teams (and word to wth wise for Linzi, extraverts were not as skilled at leading such teams!) Perhaps what was missing in Joan’s skillset was setting expectations and ground rules for these difficult-to-run meetings, and being given the authority and autonomy to enforce those ground rules and address disruptive behaviors. Instead, it sounds like her senior leaders just stepped in and took over, further disempowering her. Introversion does not equal unassertiveness or timidity. But introverts do seem to like things to get done and stay done, therefore the dissolving structure of the meetings was an exhausting challenge. There seem to have been lots of structural ways of shaping up the dynamics. Great conversation!!

  • Melanie

    Joan and Linzi are fortunate to have a manager like you. I envy them for that. This week I quit my long term position in a medical call center. I had risen to a lower leadership position, but my temperament as an introvert definitely did not match the job. Burned out, stressed out and unhappy, my requests to try something different were ignored. Now I’m at a career crossroads with years of customer service experience, but I definitely want something quieter and with more solitude than a call center. What that is, we shall see. But it’s good to know there ARE managers out there like you, who pay attention and listen to their employees needs and happiness.

    • AngelN19HJ

      I’m going through the same thing. I suggested a role change, which would have both filled existing holes in the company AND saved money. It won’t happen, because I’m apparently “too negative.” Well, yes, I am. Because I am (like you) burned out, stressed out, and unhappy. I’m juggling too many unrelated duties that should be done by the people whose jobs they fall under, and in over 4 years, I’ve never had a vacation (or a raise…) because they will not provide me with the same backup everyone else has. In addition, I’m relied upon to back up every position, from proofreading to copywriting to graphic design because I have a unique skill set. I’m TIRED. I’m happy to work hard and I have a new manager who’s incredibly supportive and inspiring, but she is not a miracle worker. Not all decisions rest with her. I’m so frustrated.

      • Melanie

        It IS so incredibly frustrating. I don’t know what the answer is. I wish I had realized and understand my introvert side years ago so I might have ended up in a career more suited to that. It’s harder to make a career transition when you’re in your mid 40s.But I’m looking at it as an opportunity for happiness and a healthier wirk/life balance. I probably won’t make the same salary, but I’ll be happier. I hope. I completely sympathize with you on this kind of situation. Life is too short to be unhappy at work.

        • AngelN19HJ

          The really sad part is, like I said in an earlier post, my career (editing/proofreading) IS suited to my introverted personality… but today’s workplace is not. And I’m even older than you (52), so it’s even harder to leave and find another job. 🙁 I’m rooting for you.

          • Melanie

            Thanks. ☺ I’m rooting for you too. I hope something will change or open up for you. I will say I’m grateful this community is available. It’s nice to know there are kindred spirits going through similar situations. Hopefully we can at least support each other, if not help. Support is help in its own way, at least to me.

          • AngelN19HJ

            It’s nice to talk to people who don’t think you’re a high-maintenance, sour freak because you just need quiet time to concentrate. Especially at work. How has the workplace turned into this? It used to be that quiet professionalism was expected at the office. Now it’s frowned upon. We’ve got people bringing kids and pets into the office, playing music/videogames, yelling back and forth, eating noisy and smelly food with no regard for their co-workers, having conversations on speakerphone… why is all that considered not only acceptable, but preferable? How did the people quietly doing their work without making a scene become the problem? What gets me is that if i showed up Monday wearing jeans, sneakers and a sweatshirt, I would immediately be disciplined and told it was inappropriate. But people loudly disrupting and distracting others all day long isn’t? Why is what I wear more important than how I behave?

          • Melanie

            I totally agree. I don’t understand the definition of professionalism that’s considered acceptable now. Eating and chewing gum while on calls with patients. Being social rather than completing assignments, planning the next potluck… all acceptable for certain people at my former employer. As the person who’s actually WORKING in the chaos and having to pick up the slack and put out fires caused by those not working, it gets to be unbearable. I love reading about the increase of quiet work places and guidance for quiet leaders.

          • AngelN19HJ

            You are my spirit animal. LOL

          • Melanie
          • AngelN19HJ

            I just followed you on Twitter. OMG, you sound exactly like me!!

          • Dave Bartell

            Hi @AngelN19HJ:disqus and @disqus_k50PEiJfOK:disqus the “modern” workplace is evolving into a noisy social living room. Also, if you work for the fruit logo company in your profile foto, then the expectations and pace are relenteless. Technology based companies preach all the marvels of life balance and utterly suck at actually promoting a culture of working that way.

            Meditation has worked greatly for me to survive a noisy world, especially one happening around my working concentration space. Meditation works even better because the “modern” HR leaders hear “mindfulness” and think more productivity.

            The real benefits of meditation and mindfulness arise when you become adept at noticing the chaos and adroitly set it aside. The noise and smells are not personally aimed at you. They just are. Like the wind or hum of a refrigerator. It requires practice and is not perfect, but you learn to achieve mental focus and let the noises & smells flow around you. I visualize myself as a large rock in a river. The water surrounds, but does not move me.

            And to keep this from being too new age feely, I work in a very senior role at an intensely demanding techology company in silly-con valley. Meditation has added a wonderful dimension to my life. And, is also a powerful tool if applied that way. After all – there is no such thing as work-life balance. There is only life.

  • Colleen McCaffery

    Wow… if only the world had more managers like this.

  • AngelN19HJ

    My *career* is suited to my personality (I am an editor and proofreader). But my workplace is not. My employer simply does not respect the need for a quiet, distraction-free workspace in order to concentrate. Private offices are provided on the basis of position and ego, not the needs of the job function. I am treated like a high-maintenance primadonna, and I dread going to work every day. There’s a constant emphasis on being gregarious and “collaborative,” and my introversion has me branded as a negative and antisocial person. I would like to leave, but it seems every workplace is an open-plan environment, even for positions such as mine, which require quiet. I AM better suited to “the job in the corner” because that’s what my job function needs. But people can’t separate that need from a personality-based judgment, nor will they understand that I simply can’t do a good job with everyone endlessly chatting, laughing, crinkling bags/crunching on chips, listening to music, coughing, clearing their throats, humming, etc. So what do I do? Where do I go? How does someone whose job function requires quiet even survive in today’s workplace, which has normalized noise and values “look at me!!” self-promoters over employees who quietly do a good job? I am at the end of my rope.

    • phatkhat

      Could you telecommute, maybe?

      • AngelN19HJ

        Needle in a haystack, finding a well-paying job like that. And my company’s policy is against it.

        • phatkhat

          Bummer, that. I feel your pain, though. I’m retired, now, but I worked as a writer/editor in a madhouse, and it isn’t easy. Fortunately for me, my boss was amenable to me becoming a “contractor” and working from home. Same salary, but no benefits. He gained, and I was happier.

          • AngelN19HJ

            I would SO do that if they’d let me. Good for you, though. Enjoy your well-earned retirement. 🙂

          • phatkhat

            Thanks! And I truly hope you are able to find a niche for yourself where you can use your talents and still be comfortable and happy! Good luck to you!

    • zz4j9m

      I’ve had to resort to earphones playing white noise (actually brown noise, which covers more of the noise spectrum) from the Simply Noise website. The open plan and the theme of “collaboration” (which apparently means “sit inches from each other with no barriers and you’ll collaborate”) make me think we might work for the same CEO. 🙂 I can telecommute if the work I need to get done requires it. But some days I show up at the office mainly to get the badge swiped (so I’m “known to the security system”) and then go where I need to go to get work done–or sit in a cubicle with my noise on.

      • AngelN19HJ

        I actually keep a white noise machine on my desk, one that sounds like a fan. But even that can’t drown out people eating potato chips and crinkling the bags, inches from my desk. And the melodramatic phlegm rattling and hacking. I actually like my co-workers a lot. But their habits are distracting, disruptive and not conducive to an open-plan environment.

  • Tony Vargas

    I don’t want to assume that Adam is an introvert but he is contributing to this site so…I think his vision for these two people and the change he orchestrated is a prime example of an introvert leading.

  • Tangerine

    Although its good that each ended up in a job they like I think its a bit of a shame that this portrays the stereotype of the introvert being most suited to the job in the corner whilst the extravert leads the team and wows the bosses. I thought a lot of the point of what we’ve been hearing on QR is that this need not be the case and that introverts have a lot to offer in leadership roles.

    • Tony Vargas

      I think there are two different types of leadership being addressed in your post, Tangerine. In the story above, the PM is a leading is tasked with leading the charge – a meeting and a project she’s a manager or supervisor. The other kind of leader provides vision and inspires on another level. Vision, comes from within. Introverts are charged by what comes from within.
      So how do leaders who are introverts with real vision get it “out there?” That’s the question, isn’t it?
      In closing I don’t want to insinuate that extroverts are not capable of real vision and that they are not looking within to find vision. Even introverts speak publicly sometimes, right? :?)

  • GMan

    The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff for the win!