When we talk about diversity in business it’s often dominated by age or gender. But there is increasing awareness that another aspect of diversity – personality type – can affect how people communicate and collaborate at work.
The focus should be on introverts and extroverts. My favourite definition of the difference between the two is that introverts think and extroverts think aloud. The poster child for introverts is author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain, who has done a lot to highlight the challenges and opportunities for introverts in the workplace.
There are obvious ones: open plan offices may be regarded by extroverts as a marvellous opportunity to network, but for introverts they are environments of mass distraction. You can usually spot introverts in an open plan office; they have found a quiet corner, built a wall of books around themselves, and typically sport a large pair of headphones.
An environment that is designed to force people together to collaborate and communicate can cause a certain segment of employees to withdraw entirely because of noise and lack of privacy. Creating quiet spaces in office environments and choices, such as the ability to work from home, is vital for productivity because one size doesn’t fit all.
This can also translate to collaboration in the digital space. Introverts often find video conferencing intimidating. Having a camera stuck up their nose tends to cause a strategically-placed Post-It note to be deployed, leaving them with voice only (which is why voice is still important as a collaboration tool).
Email is a better medium, but can cause issues where introverts spend hours drafting a reply. The time spent getting the tone and wording right can cause log jams in inboxes. Email is also a terrible collaboration tool in general – chat is better.
So is there a happy medium where introverts and extroverts can play together? The key is choice.
From a technology perspective, having a combination of verbal and written input to meetings can be ideal. Webjams (massive, moderated, online forums held over a couple of days) allow extroverts to react but give introverts thinking time. Enabling online comments and chats alongside video or audio meetings can act in a similar way.
From a leadership perspective, it is all about understanding the mix of people you have. Introverts will speak up in meetings if they are confident that they have something valuable to contribute, have time to prep, and believe that they will be listened to. Leaders may need to give them a nudge to do it – which is why leaders need to be good at orchestrating meetings (whether face to face or digital), to ensure that introverts’ voices are heard.
It’s important because, as Cain says: “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the good ideas.”
Nicola Millard is head of customer insight and futures in BT Global Services' innovation team and author of The Collaboration Conundrum: A WorkShift whitepaper