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Can introverts thrive in business? 5 tips for survival and success

Galuh Adika Alifani
Galuh Adika Alifani

Business leader and strategy consultant

Jakarta  /  Tue, July 14, 2020  /  08:05 am
Can introverts thrive in business? 5 tips for survival and success

Introverts working in business might have to set their boundaries to avoid getting burnt out. (Shutterstock/FGC)

When it comes to careers in business, many people think extroverts have a higher chance of success than introverts.

That stereotype has lingered for many years. The business world as we see it now is an exciting playground for extroverts, but it may not be so natural for introverts if they don’t put in the work to adjust and adapt.

Many years ago, business recruiters preferred to prioritize applicants who were extroverted. Even now, we are still living in a world that idealizes extroversion. If you don’t talk much, some people might consider you awkward, antisocial or even strange. Quietness is often mistaken for rudeness, silence for incapability and solitude for lack of interest.

Indeed, extroverts have more energy when it comes to dealing with people — and isn’t that what business is mostly about? Building relationships, forming partnerships and pushing for sales all derive from people skills. You need to have resilience to cope with a full day of negotiations, meetings, sales and networking. Hey introverts, feel that familiar churning feeling in your stomach?

According to American psychologist Laurie Helgoe, research has shown that introverts have higher levels of electrical activity in the brain than extroverts. With more brain activity, introverts may process more information per second than extroverts. They also have a more active Broca’s area in the brain, which is often responsible for one’s inner monologue.

We all already know that introverts gain energy from within, but the two factors above also cause introverts to react differently than extroverts do:

·       Introverts are prone to overthinking

·       They’re prone to anxiety problems

·       They get overwhelmed quicker and more easily by external stimulation

·       They find it hard to respond quickly or spontaneously to a statement. While they may process information more quickly, Introverts can spend a longer time processing than extroverts, as they prefer to take extra time to understand ideas.

So can introverts actually succeed in business? Of course! Make no mistake, when I say introverts can be uncomfortable in business, I don’t mean incapable. In fact, many business leaders and entrepreneurs today are indeed introverts. Some introverts can actually be very good business leaders, and some even excel in more specific roles like sales or business development.

The better question is: can introverts be well and happy doing their jobs in business for a long period of time without getting burned out? The answer is: it depends. Without awareness of their own limitations and personal needs, it is likely that introverts will get burned out much sooner than their extroverted colleagues, which will eventually lead to a decrease in performance and loss of motivation. At the end of the day, happiness is still a big factor affecting people’s productivity.

So if you’re an introvert, how can you endure the demanding nature of work without exhausting yourself in the long run?

Below are some tips that might help you to get started:

1. Know yourself and understand your limitations

The first and most important thing is to know yourself and your limitations. How many back to back meetings or calls can you tolerate in a day? Are you more comfortable speaking in front of many small groups or one large forum? How spontaneous are you in discussions? How much time do you need to prepare before coming to a meeting?

As we work from home, I’ve witnessed the madness that my husband, an entrepreneur, experiences on a day-to-day basis. He looks like he is working at a call center all day long – back-to-back calls from morning to evening. For him, that might be normal work practice but not for me. I know my limitations. I would not be able to endure such things if they happened continuously every day of the week.

However, as a manager, meetings are the meat of your job; they are inevitable. This is why it’s important to find your “style” to avoid getting burnt out in such situations. I, for example, have done some of these things to help me cope with my daily rhythm:

·       Change as many calls and meetings as possible to written forms or text discussions.

·       Limit the number of back-to-back meetings I have in a day and force myself to have breaks in between meetings (more on that in point two below).

·       Always spare some preparation time before calls and meetings.

·       Delegate some less urgent meetings to team members instead.

2. Provide for alone time between meetings or during work

Some people have difficulty enduring back-to-back meetings without a break in the middle. I am part of this group.

So I often block my own calendar, typically for one to two hours, to give myself some safe thinking time alone. This will prevent other people from scheduling back-to-back meetings. During these times, I can finish meaningful written work, think, reflect, consider takeaways from the previous meeting and prepare for the next one. Of course, this should be treated flexibly for urgent cases.

Some other people might have a different style, perhaps where they prefer to pack their meetings in a row, then finish early and spare more alone time afterwards. Knowing yourself is the key.

This also applies to daily work in the office. Whether you realize it or not, an open office layout can drain you. I like to take a 10 to 15 minute break every now and then to sit comfortably by myself outside at a café near my office. During these times, I often reflect and think better.

While working at the office, make sure you also spare some time for yourself, away from other people, if that’s important to you.

3. Communicate your limitations and preferences to key stakeholders in your business

One thing I learned and really appreciated during my time working at the Boston Consulting Group is that, in the beginning of a project, there are introductory team meetings where everyone shares their personal working style and coordinates with others. This allows people to adapt to each other and respect everyone’s different styles and preferences.

For example, some things highlighted in the sessions are:

·       Communication preference: Are you a “call” person, or a “text” person? How do you feel about a spontaneous call when your colleague wants to speak with you?

·       Brainstorming style: Do you prefer spontaneous brainstorming where you speak your mind aloud or do you prefer to have thinking time alone before a brainstorming session to bring thoughts and ideas to the session?

These are just two of many working preferences that you can reflect upon. Make sure you communicate these things with your colleagues and stakeholders and find a balance with their working style.

4. Find a team member or a boss who complements you—not overlaps with you

If you are an introvert, chances are you’ll be more comfortable working with another introvert. But this might be counterproductive, as a team works best with diversity.

An extroverted boss or team member can complement you for speaking when you’re out of energy; they can cover you for networking or social events while you're at your low point that day; and they can handle the more chatty accounts or clients while you take care of the more reserved ones.

There are many ways work with a team that complements you. The most important thing is to determine how you can adapt well to them.

5. Plan and focus on efficiency

An extrovert may gain energy by talking with as many clients as possible and for as long as possible. As an introvert you will likely find this draining. Hence, introverts should push themselves to achieve the same results with less time or effort, which translates to efficiency. How can you do that?

·       Plan well, and make the best of your “preparation” time. Most introverts are planners, and they don’t do well in spontaneous and pressurized environments where they have to improvise on the go. Make sure you regularly observe what’s happening on your calendar. This can ensure you prepare yourself mentally for a busy day of meetings. Also, come to meetings fully prepared, so that it takes less time for you to get what you need.

·       Practice and make yourself used to it. Practice not only increases efficiency but also increases your level of comfort doing a certain activity. The better you are at doing something, the less you consider it a burden and the slower it will drain you.

Let’s say you need to go to different networking events every day during this week. You will most likely feel uncomfortable after the first hour, and that one hour that you’ve spent will have regrettably flown by without you being able to hit your key objective for the night because you’re inefficient. In a different case, if you push yourself and keep getting better at networking, most likely you will be able to achieve much more in the same one hour of time that you spent. Plus, you will endure longer and get more out of the event.

All of the above points are good to prevent yourself from getting burned out quickly. However, to push yourself further for success in the longer term, it’s not enough to just think about these.

It is also important that you keep pushing your boundaries and regularly go out of your comfort zone. Then you will eventually be more and more comfortable facing the wild world out there. Remember, practice makes perfect even if you’re initially really bad at something, and a different social circle or environment can change people—sometimes to an unbelievable extent.

For example, someone very introverted in his teens can appear very outspoken in his adulthood, thanks to having been raised in an environment that pushes him in that direction. He may well still be an introvert at his core, but his tolerance towards extroverted activities has increased because he is used to it. It doesn’t mean that an introvert will need to completely change themselves in order to be successful. In fact, they need to embrace who they are, and recognize the strengths that come with their introversion. However, the ones who survive are the ones who adapt.

Find the right “out of your comfort zone” challenge. Don’t push yourself too hard, but do it regularly and consistently. Don’t make your introversion an excuse to not perform and don’t avoid the challenge. Tolerate yourself, but try to adapt and keep pushing your boundaries. (kes)


Galuh Alifani is an experienced business leader and now heading the business development and product department at Tokopedia, the largest e-commerce platform in Indonesia. She is also a strategy consultant, and has assisted many large companies in Indonesia on strategic projects with the Boston Consulting Group. She is a graduate of the University of Cambridge and the Bandung Institute of Technology.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.