Good Teams Need Introverts

Photo by Suzanne Gielis

Photo by Suzanne Gielis

In high school, I was shy and met two of my best friends through a group assignment for one of our classes.  I later found out that before we worked together on that assignment, they thought I was "frigid" because I rarely spoke in class.  Now I know that I was not only shy: I am an introvert.  And they needed my help with that assignment.

I recently shared a list of 23 Signs You're Secretly an Introvert on Twitter, and it got a number of favorites, retweets, and replies.  It seems like I'm not the only one wondering about what it means to be an introvert or work with introverts.  A large number of people in software development and engineering are introverts, and sources continue to suggest top IT careers for introverts, tell us how to manage introverts in software development, and to explore the psychology of engineers.  Yes, introverts love engineering and software, and engineering and software seems to love introverts.  But the industries are changing and adopting team-based practices--what does it mean for introverts?

Yes, the way organizations work is changing, and introverts may need to change too.   Are introverts really so hard to understand and work with?  I think not, but there's a stereotype to be overcome: the one that says introverts hate people.  Introverts can be great leaders.  If you only consider what a stereotypical introvert is, you might think that he/she would not be well-suited to be an agile coach, for example.  Someone who can teach, mentor, facilitate, and coach individuals as well as teams.  Being an agile coach means standing in the front of the room sometimes.  But I wonder if my introversion is part of why I am so good at recognizing a healthy team from an unhealthy team--if spending time with a team is particularly draining for me, what does that tell me about their behaviors?  Are they hearing one another speak and showing respect for all voices?  Are they positive, constructive, and creative, or are they weighed down with negativity and stuck in their thinking?

In reality, teams need both introverts and extroverts, just as they need men and women, and younger people and older people--they need some diversity to create just enough tension or dynamics in the team to allow for movement and growth.  And while we often think extroverts will be more successful on a team, that's not always the case according to one study:

It turns out that extroverts contribute less than team members expect and the contributions they do make are not valued highly over time.  Neurotics, by contrast, are motivated to work hard on behalf of their teams, who wind up appreciating their efforts, in part because they exceed everyone’s expectations. In the end, extroverts decline in the teams’ esteem while neurotics rise in status.

I cringe at the use of the word "neurotics" rather than "introverts," but I think the point is clear.  Introverts can be incredible team members.  

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.