When I first thought about joining the technology world as a developer around eight years ago, I imagined a developer to be a person locked in their office turning coffee into code, totally on their own.
As an introvert, this scenario seemed amazing to me.
It was, to my surprise, that I found a completely different scenario; not only at my first but also at most of my subsequent jobs. A huge open space with a lot of talking and noise, several meetings, and – to me – pointless interactions. At first, I tried to adapt. I participated in everything, played the game, and tried my best to fit into an environment that was very hostile to my own nature.
It was only a few years ago that I found out how I could learn to belong in this noisy world without having to change who I was. This article is about that journey of navigating a world that doesn’t shut up as an introvert – and learning to embrace it.
What is an introvert?
First things first: what is an introvert, anyway? I believe most people (especially extroverts) think that a shy, antisocial, and kinda creepy person is the same as an introvert. But the truth is not as simple as the stereotype.
An introvert is someone that often prefers calm and low-stimulant environments. Unlike extroverts who gain energy from social interaction, introverts have to expend energy in social situations. According to Marti Olsen Laney in her book Introvert Advantage, introverts have a longer neural pathway when processing stimuli. So for introverts, processing interactions and events is complicated, as while they are processing information, they are also carefully attending to their internal thoughts, emotions, and particularly evaluating possible results – minding every minor mistake.
Introverts process everything in their surroundings, which makes them easily overstimulated. You can learn more about how an introvert’s brain works in this amazing article by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West.
The pre-pandemic tech environment
Now we know more about introversion, let’s analyze the pre-pandemic tech world. What do most offices look like? Open spaces. Though this might seem like a great opportunity to make people more accessible and closer to each other, it can also be an introvert’s nightmare. There are a lot of things going on with several stimuli and people talking all the time. This makes it very hard for a person that needs low stimuli, deep concentration, and focus to do their job well and even feel welcome in that environment.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The most difficult thing about being an introvert in tech is that everyone expects you to behave as an extrovert. We tend to admire more extroverted behavior: the person that is constantly vocal and likes to make themselves be seen; the person that always has a quick response and participates a lot in every single meeting; the person that knows the secrets of effective networking. It is often thought that introversion is a defect – a thing to be fixed instead of understood.
As with most things in this world, being introverted is even harder for women. Oftentimes, leadership training and coaching focused on women in technology addresses the need to learn to speak loudly and proudly, with a focus on self-promotion and personal branding. Basically, you are taught how to meet an extroverted, male-centric standard. Due to this, we have introverted women fighting to be something they are not – to fit a personality type that the world is already full of and isn’t even effective in some cases. I will not go deeper into this topic, because Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has already done an excellent job in his book and TEDx Talk, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?
Why include introverts?
Well, besides being a decent human being, you will probably learn, as I did, how productive and creative people can be once they don’t have to pretend to fit into an environment that doesn’t suit them.
Research undertaken at Cambridge University by Brian Little shows that a life characterized by excessive self-monitoring can lead to serious health problems. In addition, Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at Insead, in France, found that spending a lot of time monitoring how one is perceived is laborious and time-consuming – and can therefore be inherently counterproductive.
Besides that, if you learn how to explore the best self of your introverted team member, you will find out several things they are probably better at than an extrovert. As they often don’t feel the need to stand out or receive all the credit for group achievements, introverts tend to be good leaders – especially for a team with an extroverted majority. They are good listeners and are able to have strong connections with team members. Their slow information processing helps them to deeply understand concepts and think before speaking.
Also, from being used to spending time alone, introverts can easily be autonomous and independent in their work, which, for many, proved to be very helpful in 2020’s chaotic and obligatory work-from-home scenario.
In my last team, we started to see a considerable increase in productivity once we took time to understand each team member's personality profile, and gave them the tools and space they needed. But I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t easy.
How to include introverts in your team
I’m going to suggest some strategies here that helped me to feel more included and that later I put into practice in my own teams.
First of all, you need to know your team and there’s no better way to do that than by talking to them. Take time to ask each team member individually how they like to work, what bothers them most in the day-to-day, and what they like to do. This way, you could discover that, for example, the team member who currently handles most of the documentation process hates it and does it poorly, while there’s another person (probably an introvert) who loves writing and doesn’t mind spending time with documentation.
Giving introverts ‘space’ is also important. Try not to demand quick responses and reactions. Instead, give them time to prep: inform them about the subject and goal of the meeting in advance. By providing a more detailed description of meetings in my former team, we were able not only to have increased participation from our introverted team members, but also have more effective meetings.
Having better-tailored work environments can help a lot. Some offices have spaces that coworkers can go to in order to have a little isolation. Although you can’t immediately change the culture of the whole company, you can tell your team members that it is ok if they want to go to a meeting room by themselves for a while, or even work from home from time to time. I once worked on a team that demanded I spend most of my time at my desk. It was the most unproductive time of my career – and also the most stressful.
Don’t be limited by process and frameworks. Pair programming can be awesome for some, but it’s not for everyone. Worry less about following trendy protocols and processes, and more about how your people are going to be affected by them.
Lastly, recognize introverts' work. It’s very common that introverts don’t get much recognition for their work as they are not very vocal about it. Learn how to evaluate performance and problem-solving beyond who speaks the loudest. Again, the best way to do this is by knowing your team and trying to fight the extrovert standard of success that is very intrinsic to us.
The goal of team culture
The most important thing in all of this is: introverts don’t hate being part of a team. Team culture is not the problem, poor management is. The goal of having a team is to embrace diversity. You can’t expect everyone to behave a certain way; people are different and that is exactly why teams work. A team full of introverts would also not be good.
If you want to be a good leader, you need to embrace everyone. You need to know people’s strengths and weaknesses if you want the make the best of your team.
I will end this article with a quote from one of my favorite authors, that I think summarizes it all pretty well:
‘Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.’
– Albert Camus