First-Class Coach: Flying solo

Is it possible to be part of a management team when you really prefer working on your own?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I do my best work when I'm by myself and I find team meetings really draining, with everyone spouting off endlessly and no decisions being made. Does that mean I'm not management material?

A: Are you aware that, in psychological terms, you are probably an introvert? What you're describing is exactly in line with what many of my introvert clients tell me about their experience of being members of a management team.

Introversion versus extraversion is much less a matter of social preference and much more about where people derive their energy. Since introverts get their energy from their inner thoughts and reflections, they tend to prefer space and time for their thinking. But the extraverts get their energy from others, and verbalising their thoughts is part of their thinking process. I've heard more than one extravert say: 'I don't know what I think until I hear myself say it.' This can seem like a very messy way of communicating to introverts - why would you open your mouth without working out what you think first?

This fundamental difference between the two types of mental wiring creates all sorts of issues for management teams - a recent ASK survey of European managers puts the proportion of introverts at just over 40%. Extraverts report that their more introverted colleagues appear remote, cold, even arrogant, and their need to think things through can make them appear reluctant to engage in the hurly-burly of extravert dialogue. Conversely, introverts describe their extraverted co-workers as noisy, intrusive and unnecessarily verbose, endlessly complicating matters by their overcommunication.

Happily, of my many introverted clients, all have reached senior management and several have gone on to lead their organisations, so there is every chance you will make good management material too. The strategy they tend to use is to be upfront about what they need from others to do a good job. Their tactics include carving out thinking time and finding a place to do it, and sounding out team members individually before meetings so they can make their views known in advance - and therefore avoid being put on the spot, another pet hate for introverts.

The ones that make it to the top have usually worked out that they need to communicate more than they naturally would. For example, because introverts tend to solve problems in their heads rather than out loud, sometimes the rest of the team can be rather surprised by their decisions and need to understand the thinking behind them. These smart senior people also make a point of greeting colleagues, despite the fact the conversation they are having in their own heads is more interesting to them than small talk.

Formal occasions, such as presentations and speeches, are often less of a problem to introverts, as they tend to be well prepared, though having to make off-the-cuff responses to questions can be a trial. Anticipating possible topic areas for questions and preparing answers helps.

When it comes to improving relationships between introverts and extraverts, the key is to recognise their differing preferences for communication and mental processes. Initiating a discussion of how to make team time more productive might be a good start, as most managers find they're in too many meetings. Ask the team to describe briefly their ideal meeting - length, style, venue, tone and content. When it's your turn, explain your preferences, for example fewer and shorter meetings, agenda circulated in advance, and so on. Subsequently, if you feel a team meeting is going off track, you can remind people of what you agreed. This way, not only will the others gain an understanding of how to get the best out of you in a team meeting, but you will also be more aware of what's going on for the others, so you feel less oppressed by it.

Finally, have some forbearance with extraverts and make sure you don't withdraw from the fray without making your ideas known. Your more thoughtful style could be a major advantage. As one extravert I know said of her introvert boss, now risen to be global CEO of a vast communications empire: 'Andrew really annoys me - he waits until everyone has said their piece and then comes up with a perfect summary of the best points we've made and gets all the credit!'

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk

Q: Is it possible to be part of a management team when you really prefer working on your own?

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