By Robin Madell
U.S. News, July 23, 2018 —
Women and introverts have traditionally been perceived as not fitting the stereotyped leadership model – here’s what to do about it.
Successful leaders have generally been associated with traits that are stereotypically linked with extroverted men, such as dominance and assertiveness. So what happens if you’re an introverted woman who aspires to reach the leadership level? You may find yourself overlooked and disregarded by louder voices.
“Introverted women who aspire to leadership positions will come face-to-face with some of their worst anxieties and fears,” says Mella Barnes, a project manager who describes herself as “very introverted.” “What seems easy, and even fun, to extroverts will be daunting and even agonizing.”
Don’t believe these assertions apply across the board? Just look at the numbers at the C-level. At the start of 2018, there were just 26 women holding CEO positions at S&P 500 companies – that’s about 5 percent, and reflects a decrease from just six months prior. And when it comes to introverts as senior executives, the figures are even worse. A seminal study of managers conducted by Deniz S. Ones and Stephan Dilchert in Industrial and Organizational Psychology found that only 2 percent of top executives are introverts.
You likely bring your own set of strengths to the table as a female introvert – perhaps you have the ability to influence others using emotional intelligence, collaboration skills or empathy. But despite your professional talents, the statistics above suggest that you may nevertheless face unique challenges in the workplace due to what Lynette Crane, founder and CEO of Quiet Brilliance Consulting LLC, terms “the double whammy effect.”
“We know that women are less likely to be promoted to leadership positions, and there is research evidence to show a considerable bias against introverts in the workplace,” says Crane. “Women are up against a male model of leadership, a flawed model of ‘successful’ human beings – male introverts suffer from this reality, too. There are hidden leaders in every organization; they’re just not being recognized.”
Just what are these challenges that introverted women might experience in the office? Crane points to issues with speaking up and social connecting. “Too often, sheer volume of conversation, which can undoubtedly lead to great visibility, is mistaken as being contributory and a sign of leadership,” says Crane. She adds that the expectation for managers to “circulate” at social events – rather than hold intense one-on-one conversations with a few people – is misguided and reflects the traditional extrovert ideal of leadership.
Connie Chi, founder and CEO of the global branding agency The Chi Group, adds that the double whammy effect can keep introverted women from reaching their full professional potential. “Many times it can cause women to shy away from really going for a leadership position for various reasons,” says Chi. “Fear of being in the spotlight, not knowing how to interact with others and even the fact that they may be put in uncomfortable situations outside an introvert’s comfort zone.”
Here are some solutions for how women introverts can overcome these types of challenges to get noticed as someone with leadership potential, and ultimately advance in their career:
Focus on substance, not on your personality. Psychoanalyst and author Claudia Luiz notes that introverted women often fall into the trap of wanting – and then trying – to be someone they are not. “Introverts should forget about changing their personality, and focus instead on the substantive matter at hand,” advises Luiz. “For example, if you are the dean of the school, don’t focus on being more lively and outgoing. Focus instead on your passion for education, and how to serve people. When introverts are fueled by their passions and they can forget about themselves, then they function superbly in leadership, no matter what their gender, or what the degree of discrimination they may suffer at the hands of sexism.”
Choose visibility strategically. As a career and performance coach for female leaders in helping professions, Ili Rivera Walter suggests a defensive approach to energy management for women introverts, which allows them to be selective about how they put themselves out there. “While extroverted leaders may thrive giving meetings and presentations, a female introvert’s default visibility strategy should protect her energy,” says Walter. “Many introvert leaders choose to work with a small team, communicate by email and rely heavily on assistants for non-essential communication. They schedule company conferences, publicity events and other high-impact engagements sparsely, with room in their schedules between events.”
Face your fears about public speaking. General public surveys show that public speaking tops the human list of fears, beating out even fear of death. If you’re a classic introvert, you might feel this anxiety even more profoundly than others. But Crane believes that if you want to excel in your career, then it’s worth it to overcome these jitters. “The reason I recommend public speaking for women and introverts is because they have spent a lot of time sitting on the sidelines, being overpowered by other people’s voices – being cut off, shouted down and just ignored,” explains Crane. “Doing a presentation is the best way to take charge, control the situation and get your entire message out. It’s the top motivator I can think of for overcoming nerves and taking the risk.”
To that end, Crane recommends that introverts harness the power that performers gain when they stand up in front of an audience to deliver a rehearsed routine with which they feel comfortable. “Performers have a barrier between themselves and the audience over which they have some control,” says Crane. “Public speaking is the best chance you have to express your good ideas without interruption, thereby gaining visibility and respect.”
Shift your perspective to the ‘double gift.’ While female introverts may find themselves dismissed or misunderstood because of their extroverted counterparts’ ability to take the reins or verbally outshine them, introverts can choose to focus on and embrace their unique strengths rather than any perceived “weaknesses,” according to licensed temperament therapist Melanie Ross Mills. “Introverts receive a special type of regard and respect compared with being a ‘Chatty Cathy,’ because their words have weight,” says Mills. “As a female introvert, you can also be a powerhouse because you take time to think, create and build – and since you’re not using a lot of external energy entertaining and ‘being on stage,’ you can cultivate depth. So instead of viewing it as a double whammy, view it as a double gift. That in itself can change your trajectory in the workplace.”