I’m not a hermit. I like people (in small to medium doses) and I enjoy working as part of a team.
But as a shy, introverted content designer in an agile team, it’s sometimes assumed that everyone’s:
- good at thinking on their feet
- happy always being ‘on’ and always available
- at home in the spotlight
That’s not true for me.
Introversion and shyness
After I read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking (which the journalist Jon Ronson perfectly described as, “…a Female Eunuch for anxious nerds”), a couple of things made more sense: my irritability when I have to go out two nights on the trot, and the dread that I feel when someone announces a ‘fun’ icebreaker.
Quiet made me realise that I’m an introvert, so I get my energy from being alone, and I’m best in quiet settings, one-to-one or in small groups.
I’m also shy, which means I’m scared of social judgement. (But not all introverts are shy too.)
My shyness/introversion combo means I find the way agile’s often put into practice challenging.
As a FOJI (Fear of Joining In) sufferer, agile ceremonies can be tough.
Standups are OK. Although they break my first-thing-in-the-morning flow, they’re mercifully brief and have a clear structure.
Sprint planning, reviews and retrospectives are heavy going. Because they 1) are long 2) involve spending wodges of time in a big group 3) are dominated by team members who think fast and voice ideas speedily 4) can descend into judginess.
My default settings are listening, observing and processing so, unlike my more forthcoming colleagues, I have trouble finding the right points to interject. By the time I’ve got my thoughts together, the moment to share them has gone.
I often wonder, ‘how come everyone else is effortlessly eloquent’? and ‘how do they think so bloody quickly? Damn you, satellite delay brain!’
Busy calendars mean that meetings are often back to back, so there’s no time to digest what’s been discussed or to recharge before the next one. And there aren’t always agendas, which makes preparing difficult.
Also, I put unnecessary pressure on myself by thinking that everything I say has to be innovative, interesting or profound.
Tone-wise, meetings range from amicable to conversation-based versions of the Hunger Games. In the latter, the point-scoring and expertise parading make me withdraw. So I don’t contribute anything unless I have to.
The office environment
As long as there’s no one with a shouty phone voice, or who hammers away at their keyboard as if it’s wronged them, I’m fine in an open-plan office.
But where I sit matters. In a past job, my desk was next to a meeting room. The constant comings and goings drove me insane. When I moved to an area with less traffic, I found focusing easier.
Actions I’ve taken
I get that this isn’t a one-way street – I know I need to contribute. So I’ve:
- joined Toastmasters
- done public speaking courses
- been mentored
- had one-to-one coaching
I ask for more information if enough isn’t given before a meeting. And if something useful comes to me afterwards, I’ll catch up with the Chair or email them my ideas.
I take forays out of my comfort zone too. Last year, I did an improv course and tried hypnotherapy.
This has helped, but I know I’ll never be Little Miss Gregarious, and that’s alright. I’m creative, good at generating ideas, empathetic, reflective and observant – all helpful things to be as a content designer.
Supporting the shy introverts in your team
Teams need people with a balance of traits and personality types. The following suggestions might help your quieter, less socially confident colleagues and staff.
Don’t assume that shy introverts are antisocial, disengaged or slow
The shy introverts in your team might:
- find interrupting hard
- be mentally rehearsing what they want to say because they want to be logical, lucid and constructive, not a rambling mess
- be telling themselves to contribute something meaningful and not just talk for the sake of it
But introverts have many strengths. As Susan Cain says, “…these are the people who can help you think deeply, strategize, solve complex problems and spot canaries in your coal mine.”
There’s a selection of free resources for companies looking to support introverts on Quiet Revolution, Cain’s website.
Acknowledge that people think at different speeds
A former boss told me my colleagues had noticed that I rarely spoke up in meetings. I was embarrassed that they thought I was an uncommunicative, brooding weirdo. (My words, not theirs.)
Don’t broach the subject like that. Have an open and safe discussion with all team members about what’s going to help them contribute.
Create psychological safety
It’s hard to speak your mind if you think you’re going to be ignored, talked over or sneered at. That’s why creating psychological safety in teams is so important.
Whether they’re introverted or extroverted, team members won’t do great work if they feel unsafe taking risks or showing vulnerability in front of their colleagues.
Make room for introverts’ contributions in meetings
Depending on what you think might be most helpful for the shy introverts in your team, ask for their thoughts directly or leave space for them to contribute if they want to.
They might share gems that they wouldn’t have voiced otherwise, and your discussion will be richer for it.
The trainer on an agile course I did recommended Time to Think by Nancy Kline for ideas about running inclusive and productive meetings.
Vary team activities
Don’t rely on brainstorming, change the activities you do in retrospectives. Research shows that brainstorming isn’t usually as effective as people working on their own. There are lots of different exercises that you can try.
Add the meeting purpose and agenda to your meeting requests
Would you invite friends to a party without telling them what it’s for, if there’s a dress code and if they should bring something? No, because you’re a polite and considerate person.
So send meeting requests with information that helps invitees decide whether they’re the right person to attend and, if they are, what they’ll be talking about.
Create quiet spaces
If possible, let people choose where they sit.
And have designated quiet spaces. One of the offices I worked in had quiet pods on each floor, and a large, enclosed quiet space – no chatting or mobile phones allowed – for people who needed to concentrate. They were brilliant.