Time to get your introverts talking (or at least typing)

The introverts who often dominate STEM professions tend to lie low in traditional meetings, which is why STEM-heavy NASA is dedicated to breaking out of the mold.

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The best teams talk. But what if your teammates aren't naturally talkative?

NASA has long confronted that problem, so Chief Knowledge Officer Ed Hoffman said his agency has made a concerted push to promote communication among extroverts and introverts.

"Realistically, most of the folks we've had at NASA have a preference for introversion," Hoffman said. In the past, NASA would administer Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tests to its employees. "I'd do...hundreds of those," Hoffman recalled. But those tests have fallen out of favor.

"We never thought, 'This tells you who a person is,'" he was quick to add. But the broad finding that NASA's ranks of engineers, technologists and visionaries tend to be introverts still holds.

In 1995, Hoffman helped found NASA's Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership, which offers numerous courses designed to facilitate effective team communication.

Last year, APPEL offered a pilot course aimed at bridging the extrovert/introvert gap called Quiet Project Management.

"We had a great mixture of extroverts and introverts," APPEL Director Roger Forsgren said of the pilot in August 2014. "The discussions were compelling because extroverts learned that their coworkers were not anti-social. They just needed quiet time for reflection and prefer to listen closely in meetings and digest what they hear before they decide to speak."

As of August 2015, Quiet Project Management is no longer a pilot course but is now among APPEL's regular offerings. Forsgren, himself an introvert, said the course is geared toward extroverted managers, but Hoffman added that even introverted leaders should reflect on the central question: How do you encourage your entire team, not just the talkers, to contribute?

Multiple ways to speak up

NASA's project-driven work environment, for example, can present pitfalls for introverted team members.

"What I've found is that, when the situation is set up right, it's a great advantage" to work on project pushes, Hoffman said. But when "it's not managed appropriately, then you lose things."

Done right, projects give people a vision and a score that help them stay on track, but it's crucial that leaders create time for learning and reflection, especially for the introverts on their teams, he added.

What about telework? Does distance threaten to isolate introverts?

"In terms of introversion, it's actually probably an advantage" to work remotely, Hoffman said.

Time is typically more limited on telework conference calls than in traditional office meetings, which can keep talkative extroverts from dominating discussions. That limited time "places a premium on having meaningful things to say," he said.

Hoffman, who is an adjunct faculty member at George Washington University, compared it to professors awarding points for "participation."

"Well, what's participation?" Hoffman asked. "That's the person who talks the most."

In the modern world of online courses, participation points have fallen off, and students don't have to blurt out answers in class. Instead, they can often type notes to the professor during a lecture.

The same holds true for videoconferences, in which workers typically have the option to type questions or comments instead of speaking up.

Having that range of communication tools is the key, Hoffman said.

"You need to make sure you're hearing from every individual," he said. "You can't have just one way that people communicate issues, problems or successes."

He also noted that, even for teams working at distance, there must be a time when everyone comes together face to face.

"You need to be able to see and talk to and come to dinner with [your team], create that trust," he said.

Faddish or lasting?

NASA might have been dealing with quiet types for decades, but like many business initiatives and pop culture discussions, the Quiet Project Management course was inspired by the work of Susan Cain.

Forsgren said the course was based on Cain's book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking."

Cain has touted the power of introverts in her writing, TED talk and other evangelization. And NASA leaders said the core ideas remain critical.

"We need to respect each other," Hoffman said. "I don't think that's ever a fad."

He also added that dividing people strictly along introvert/extrovert lines doesn't do them justice.

One study, for example, suggested that extroverts could be a liability on long space trips because their teammates could perceive them as needy or dominating. Hoffman was dismissive, however. "I think it's crazy to think that any personality preference is by itself an advantage or disadvantage," he said.

The reality, he argued, is that cognitively diverse teams do well as long as people communicate and respect one another.

"We need to be able to hear each other," he said. "We need to be able to have downtime.... There needs to be respect. There needs to be inclusion."

Forsgren pointed to the power that could lurk inside introverts just waiting to be unlocked.

"Introverts spend a lot of quiet time thinking," he said. "Perhaps not coincidentally, some of the greatest inventors and innovators -- such as Albert Einstein, Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak -- have been introverts."

He noted that world-changers like Gandhi and Rosa Parks were also introverts and added, "I guess the message is you don't want to ignore that kind of potential horsepower."

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