This Fact Will Make Introverted Leaders Proud

Regina Soh is the founder of InviPulse and a Marshall Goldsmith certified coach. She is also a content contributor on leadership development and employee engagement at Executive Lifestyle and has been featured in Singapore Business Review. Her ultimate aim? Achieve a win-win ground for companies and employees via exploration of the untapped potential of a hybrid workplace and find ways to best transition into an environment that fits a company’s needs.

As someone who is more of an introvert (but who can flex to extroversion when I need to), I count myself fortunate to be able to get over self-imposed hurdles put up by my introverted nature. Hurdles like:

  • Fear of speaking up. I shun academic modules requiring me to do presentations.
  • Fear of meeting people. The first time I interact with someone new, I feel uncomfortable.
  • Fear of being awkward. I frequently opt not to join gatherings and events where I think I’ll be uncomfortable. Most of the time, I prefer to be alone because that’s when I can be myself.

I’ve jumped over all these obstacles again and again, and I would like to share with you how I did it. It was a trial-and-error-filled journey of self-discovery.

When it comes to presenting to an audience, it’s not that I’m afraid of the audience, but, rather, I’m afraid of running out of things to say or presenting in a haphazard manner. I fear that if either of those scenarios happens, I will go into a panic mode and probably make things worse. To avoid those situations, I go through many rounds of rehearsal before any presentation.

When it comes to meeting new people, I’m (again) afraid of running out of things to converse about. I am also uncomfortable when the person I’m talking to starts to subtly show with their body language that they want to leave the conversation. This is hurtful to me as I’m someone who likes deep connections. It is also draining because I then have to hop from person to person to discover to whom I can really connect.

To make sure I have things to say, I usually prepare a few conversation starters or connectors, depending on the context of any given event. If it’s a networking function, I’ll ask questions like “What made you come to this event?” If it’s an interest-based meetup group, I’ll start with “What made you go into trekking?” The trick is to look for commonalities. I’m learning how to listen in a conversation and contribute more meaningfully—instead of always looking for the next thing to say, which usually cripples me. If I am listening, I don’t have to struggle to talk, and yet conversations flow more naturally for me. I’m not a master of listening yet and still have the urge to find my next statement, but I’m working on it.

Listening instead of talking works in group situations, like socializing dinners, too. Before I became a leadership coach, I used to work for other companies, and we would often host visitors from other countries at big dinners. Often, I would have to completely use up my brain juice to create conversation topics. It tired me out. As an employee, I couldn’t escape such occasions, but I learned to not force myself into a conversation. If I have nothing to say, I don’t talk. I just listen in to other people’s conversations. I chip in only when I genuinely have things to say. With this tactic of observation, I can get a feel for which people I will click with and then be sure to talk to them more. Eventually, I learned to say no to most such events. This was the most effective.

Even with these strategies, I still get butterflies in my stomach when I speak up; I still fear the social awkwardness of meeting people; and I still like to be alone. The point I would like to make is that you should continue to explore what works for you, at a level you are comfortable with. I was only able to come up with strategies that worked for me when I understood where my fears stemmed from. So, it’s important to also connect with and understand yourself.

What have all these fears got to do with leadership?

A few recent events have made me realize—introverted leaders feel they are inferior when compared to their extroverted counterparts. Unfortunately, introverted leaders are often defeated by loud external opinions and quiet internal behaviors.

Factors—such as the Imposter Syndrome; being a “situational contributor,” which can lead to a lack of understanding of how introverts communicate; and the misconception that quiet people are shy and shouldn’t command respect—all can contribute to a sense of inferiority among introverted leaders and introverts who aspire to leadership positions. It’s not that introverts are incapable. It’s because the world frequently regards extroverts as people who naturally possess good leadership skills due to their outgoing characteristics.

Although introverted leaders may seem disadvantaged, what they may not know is that introverts actually rock as leaders! Here are some characteristics an introverted leader is likely to possess, which turns out to be advantageous:

An introverted leader may be uncomfortable talking to a big group but gains deeper connections more easily: An introverted person like myself prefers deeper connections. Getting information from a big group is never my cup of tea. Though a little time-consuming, one-to-one or small-group conversations work very well for me. I can use my personal touch to make sure the people I’m talking to are comfortable. Otherwise, a person’s genuineness is difficult to feel in a big group.

An introverted leader may not contribute much during discussions but still will make their presence known: An introverted leader tends to process lots of information internally before contributing. I typically prefer to listen and will contribute when the meeting is over. I will also add my insights to meeting minutes and talk to individual parties to share my comments. It’s rare that we speak up, but when we do, we tend to speak with care, taking control of the situation.

An introverted leader may do things in a quieter style: To some, this may seem like a weaker style, but a quieter style can actually make people feel more comfortable. Not everyone welcomes the limelight, and introverted leaders understand this, protecting their employees from unwanted exposure. When we appreciate effort and want to reward, we do so in a low-profile manner. One thing I do quite often is buy food/gifts for my team and colleagues. If possible, I try to put the gifts on each individual’s table before they come in to surprise them and show appreciation. I don’t announce I bought the gifts, but my employees know I’m thanking them. It’s a kind of unspoken connection.

I hope my story and actions have inspired you. If you feel or know you are introverted, do not despair. It is possible to lead well, gain respect from people, and achieve outstanding business results when you start to maximize your introverted strengths.

Field Notes brings you first-hand workplace experiences written by contributors who share their own stories, the lessons they’ve learned, and the unique benefits of a quiet approach to life in the office. Whether you’re an introvert looking to make the most of your strengths or an extrovert/ambivert who wants to learn how your quiet colleagues tick, Field Notes offers real-world insights about taking a walk on the quiet side. Submit your own story and watch this space for more perspectives from your colleagues.