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.

Networking for Introverts

Photo by Dan Callahan

Photo by Dan Callahan

Some people go to conferences for networking opportunities, but I typically go to learn new stuff (and don't pay much attention to people). I don't feel compelled to talk to a bunch of people just because I'm in the same room as them. Have the curiosity and courage to talk to strangers and make connections with lots of people in a short period of time? I find that overwhelming and tiring.  As an introvert, I find it draining to interact with a high number of people in short periods of time.

I’ve struggled in the past at conferences to meet people and learn from all of the sessions I attended.  Leading up to the Scrum Gathering Las Vegas, my bar was low but I learned some new concepts AND had some good networking moments:

  • There were some folks I recognized from the Dallas user groups, so I chatted with a few of them in the hallways, over breakfast, and went to dinner with one. They're not people I spend a whole lot of time talking to in Dallas outside of our group meetings. It was cool to see familiar faces outside the geography of our community.
  • I attended a session on Dispersed Teams and recognized the speaker from last year's AYE Conference. I stayed after the session to talk to him more about the content he covered and reaffirmed our connection.
  • During the Agile Superpowers session that covered a different language to think about coaching, I found myself repeatedly standing in the same parts of the room as one woman in particular. She reflected some of the awkwardness I felt when the presenters asked us to form a group and (without talking) come up with a physical gesture for a given superpower, which I think gave us an initial sense of connection. We ended up in different parts of the room at the end, and she shared some of her thoughts and experiences with the large group, allowing herself to be really vulnerable. I recognized the strength she had in doing so and realized that whatever followed her act of courage could either give her tremendous support or make her feel incredibly isolated. With barely a second thought, I started blurting out my thoughts and experiences, joining her in vulnerability. She and I exchanged business cards after the session, and we've stayed in touch through emails since then.
  • Since we had free time in the evenings, I decided to look up places for swing dancing and found that some dancers regularly go to the House of Blues on Tuesday nights. I went and sat in the bar. After watching for a while, I approached one of the dancers, and by the end of the night, I had danced with 4 or 5 guys. One guy in particular told me to connect with him online; I messaged him before I visited Vegas in November and was able to dance with some locals again.

So how did I manage to network as an introvert without missing out on learning new ideas?

  1. Use common experiences – I found it easiest to start conversations with people whom I shared something: we were from the same city, attended a different conference together, participated in the same workshop, or shared a hobby.  A shared experience provides an easy icebreaker and helps define the relationship immediately.
  2. Connect with individuals – I rarely approach groups and instead focus on an individual.  Pick one friendly-looking person and form a genuine connection.  What does he love about his job?  What was she excited to learn at the conference?  It’s challenging to insert yourself into a group and get to know everyone, so start small.  The best connections are formed one-on-one.
  3. Don’t try to do everything – If being in a room full of people drains you, then set limits on how much time you spend in that environment.  In order for me to get the most out of a conference, I have to pay attention to my own needs, which means that I take breaks for quiet time.  I need time to think about the new ideas and new people that I’ve been introduced to, and I may need to skip a conference session during the day so I can keep learning the rest of the day.  Learn what works best for you.

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.