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How introverts can shatter the leadership glass ceiling

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By: Ryan Showalter, Director, Business Development Consulting - Merchandising
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Introversion and extroversion are two personality traits that are widely discussed in the context of workplace productivity and success. While extroverted individuals are typically seen as outgoing, assertive and sociable, introverted individuals are often viewed as reserved, reflective and introspective. Introversion can be considered both a superpower and a weakness—especially for career advancement. We’ll explore why that is and how to overcome these barriers.

Studies suggest the differences between introversion and extroversion stem from neurotransmitter differences and pathways. Compared to extroverts, introverts have a longer neural pathway for processing stimuli that is associated with long-term memory and planning. Simply put, introverts process interactions and thoughts through a more complex pathway than extroverts. Introverts also require less stimulation from their surroundings than extroverts do.

These differences manifest themselves in what energizes introverts and extroverts: Introverts are energized by environments with less stimuli, e.g., taking a stroll in a quiet park, whereas extroverts are energized by mingling in large groups.

However, introverts are often perceived in opposition to extroverts and misunderstood as shy, aloof, or antisocial. This can create misconceptions about their ability to lead a team and make larger contributions to the company's overall goals as well as undermine opportunities for them to advance their careers.

“In my mind, ITOPiA is another wonderful example of 84.51°’s accepting & supportive workplace culture. What I love about ITOPiA is that it gives a voice to a fairly large group of people who are less likely to speak out otherwise.” –84.51° associate

Diversity in the workplace is critical for innovation and problem-solving. Compared to homogenous teams, diverse teams bring a wider range of perspectives, experiences, and skills to the table. It is no surprise that research shows diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams in decision-making, problem-solving, and creativity. It's also important to encourage diversity in leadership styles. Introverted leaders, for instance, have been found to perform equally as well as extroverted leaders—and even outperform in some areas. Extroverts, however, dominate leadership positions, according to a study of more than 4,000 managers.

Despite these obstacles, there are solutions for introverts to break through the leadership glass ceiling. It’s critical to note that the answer is NOT to emulate or imitate extroverts; rather, it is to find YOUR own way that is authentic to you and who you are, that delivers desirable and sustainable success:

When interviewing for a position, take a close look at the organization’s culture. How does the organization support its associates? At 84.51°, our mission is to create a diverse culture of inclusion and belonging that inspires our associates to bring their whole selves to work every day. 

One of the ways we do this is through our employee resource group, ITOPiA. 84.51° and Kroger associates have both formed ITOPiA chapters that empower and support introverts through education, career development and more. Many ITOPiA members have noted that for the first time, they feel accepted and supported in a workplace. As an 84.51° associate put it: “In my mind, ITOPiA is another wonderful example of 84.51°’s accepting & supportive workplace culture. What I love about ITOPiA is that it gives a voice to a fairly large group of people who are less likely to speak out otherwise.”

In addition to the right technical skills, having people skills or “soft skills” can open doors to a promotion or leadership role. But that doesn’t mean you have to imitate an extroverted person in order to forge connections with different stakeholders. Introverts tend to be good observers and good listeners—use these qualities to your advantage.

For instance, if you have new research that you’re excited to share, identify the people you should reach out to. Research their roles and interests and use that knowledge to highlight the aspects of your research that would resonate with them and hold their attention. This can make the conversation feel less forced and more valuable for everyone involved.

Introverts should feel empowered to not downplay the value of their thoughts and distinctive perspectives. Introverts are often measured and methodical thinkers who are strong problem solvers. For instance, when innovating and supporting strategic planning, introverts may be more risk-adverse than extroverts. Combining these dynamics will more likely yield a stronger solution or plan.

Stepping outside of your comfort zone requires energy. Just as athletes build up their strength and stamina over time, the same is possible with being comfortable in large social settings and putting yourself out there. Think HIIT: high intensity interval training. Volunteer for leadership positions or opportunities to present your research and then recharge with some solo time or self-reflection. Proactively scheduling time to recharge will help you maintain sustainable energy levels for reaching your goals. You can also embrace the test-and-learn mindset to take small steps to start and expand on what works which eventually leads to big changes over time.

Promoting your work and your personal brand is essential for professional growth but do it in a way that works for you. If striking up conversations with a roomful of strangers—virtually or in-person—sounds like torture, focus on building deeper connections with a few key individuals at a time. Prepare for the event by researching participants and create a list of potential topics to discuss and questions you’d like to ask.

At a company level, implementing inclusive strategies and practices that support both introverts and extroverts is also critical. For example, at 84.51°, it is part of our company culture to collaborate through different synchronous and asynchronous communication methods from in-person meetings and live video to email and chat. The company also sets aside time—Fearless Fridays—for associates to focus on personal development and uninterrupted deep work. Small details like these add up to a more inclusive culture that recognizes different communication preferences and work styles.

Understanding one’s self is key to unlocking career success. Breaking through that leadership glass ceiling requires understanding how you can leverage your unique strengths to drive value and desired outcomes. A limited view of what makes a good leader holds people back from truly flexing their strengths. Just as there are different types of superheroes, there are many different leadership styles. Work environments where the unique contributions of both introverts and extroverts are balanced, acknowledged, and recognized fosters innovation and, frankly, makes business sense.

Patrick Halpin, Don Somers, Lyndsey Padden contributed.

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Ryan Showalter, Director, Business Development Consulting - Merchandising
As Director of Business Development Consulting – Merchandising, Ryan leads various teams in driving value for clients and generating revenue growth. Ryan joined 84.51° in 2015 as Customer Strategy & Activation (CSA) c...

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