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By Steve Kelman

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Managing introverts and extroverts

Shutterstock image: female workforce manager.

Harvard Business Review has a Twitter account (@HarvardBiz) with almost 2.4 million followers that runs frequent short articles on practical management topics. These are typically written by freelance writers or consultants, seldom by professors -- though they often cite academic work.

A few months ago, I blogged about a piece at the site called, "Are you caring enough to give tough feedback?" And I saw another interesting, very practical piece at @HarvardBiz over the Thanksgiving break titled, "How to be good at managing both introverts and extroverts."

The article, by journalist Rebecca Knight, begins by noting that introversion and extroversion are essential features of personality. Knight quotes Susan Cain, the author of a bestselling 2012 book on introversion called Quiet, as saying that "introversion and extroversion go to the heart of who a person is: how they work, how they live, and how they interact."

Extroverts tend to tackle assignments promptly. They're quick, sometimes rash decision-makers, who like to think out loud and are comfortable with risk-taking and multitasking. Introverts work more deliberately and prefer to concentrate on a single task at a time." Extroverts gravitate toward groups and they tend to think out loud. Introverts typically dislike noise and big group settings.

Cain notes, crucially, that good team performance requires contributions from the energy and quickness of extroverts, and the deliberativeness and care of introverts. As the Harvard Business School's Francesca Gino has put it, "a properly balanced team has the strengths and skills of both personality sets, whereas a team of too many extroverts can suffer from ego issues, while a team of too many introverts can be lacking a shared team dynamic."

Stifling either personality type's ability to be themselves, meanwhile, is likely to produce even larger problems.

The article argues that reconfiguring elements of the work environment can also help. One idea is to eliminate the typical first-thing-in-the-day staff meeting and instead introduce a policy of no meetings before 12:30pm. "This gives people who prefer head down time the freedom to have that," Cain argues, "but it also gives extroverts the knowledge that there will be time to talk things out."

In terms of the physical design of the workplace, Cain notes that everyone, but especially introverts, needs private space to get work done, and suggests small design changes to create "nooks and crannies for people to go and be alone" or even "quiet zones" similar to Amtrak's quiet cars. Managers can encourage teams to develop cultural practices whereby people signal they should not be interrupted; in some offices people wear headphones to indicate they're in concentration mode.

At the same time, managers must also see to it that extroverts don't get discouraged by everyone retreating to their cubicles; spaces for gathering, such as coffee break areas, should also be provided.

Gino argues that a key to drawing out introverted employees is "to make them feel comfortable enough to contribute." She suggests telling them in advance you would like them to contribute so they can come prepared." Sharing a meeting agenda a few days in advance helps introverts to think about how they want to convey their ideas "rather than having to improvise in the moment." Asking introverts to provide ideas and feedback in writing can also be helpful.

Some blog readers are likely aware of my interest -- OK, call it an obsession -- with learning about management techniques available to government managers that can be implemented without any additional budget or new statutory authority. That is, situations where federal managers have no excuse for not using them when appropriate.

The suggestions in this article fall into that category. Most of them mainly involve what psychologists call "mindfulness" -- paying conscious attention to one's surroundings. I suspect a manager may be halfway there in terms of thinking about how more successfully to manage introverts and extroverts in the workplace simply by thinking about the topic at all -- realizing there is an issue here and that conscious managerial intervention helps.

I would urge managers reading this blog to be mindful about introverts and extraverts in your workplace, and to develop your own ideas, over and above the ones this article suggests. Federal managers, add this to the list of management techniques that can improve performance just by your willingness as a manager to use them.

And readers, please feel free to share any such ideas as posts for the comments section of this blog.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 30, 2015 at 3:52 PM

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Reader comments

Tue, Dec 1, 2015 Al

Meetings tend to be unproductive for both introverts and extroverts, so any restriction on them is a good thing :)

Tue, Dec 1, 2015

As an introvert, I am constantly irritated by two things: (1) So-called extroverts who won't let me get a word in edge-wise. This is not extroversion -- it is just plain rude and discourteous. (2) The number of rash, and irrational decisions made because no one takes the time to think things all the way through. If people would stop and really think, you could probably cut the government's IT budget by 15% to 20% in the first year.

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