The Introvert and the Startup

feetPerhaps nowhere is the phrase “one size fits all”  more misplaced than when talking about work environments and company culture. This is particularly true if, like me, you just happen to be something of an introvert.

At startups with aggressive growth and targets to hit, we try to foster a culture in which people have the opportunity to contribute their strengths and abilities, whilst creating an environment in which they want to spend a significant amount of their time. We also want to have some fun to offset all the hard work.

The creative options and flexibility for doing this at small startups simply can’t be matched in the wider corporate world, so it is no wonder that startups tend to have some of the most enviable work environments and cultures.

But getting it right involves a complex interplay of factors when catering for a diverse workforce, and talented people bring their whole personality to work. Tweak one environmental or cultural aspect to suit certain people or to get results, and you often find you’ve ruined another aspect for someone else. Worst of all, you may even hamper their ability to contribute.

There is perhaps no group that this applies to more than introverts, as many startup environments can be somewhat charged up and geared towards the high-energy needs of extroverts.

introvert, noun /ˈɪntrəvəːt/

A person who is more energised and stimulated by spending time alone or in low-key situations, than with others, and who finds certain group interactions exhausting.

To my amusement, I find it easier to tell people that I’m gay than to admit being an introvert. The former rarely causes a ripple. But the latter is often the start of a grand inquisition: “What’s an introvert?” “Why do you say that?” “You don’t seem like one” “We don’t need introverts here” “You just need to come out of your shell and let your hair down”… All precisely the kinds of confrontation an introvert wants to avoid at any cost. It’s no wonder we usually try to fly under the radar.

It is said that people are hard-wired somewhere on the introversion / extroversion spectrum, or we learn it very early on in life and it can be incredibly hard to unlearn. This has certainly been my experience. But what we are rarely told are the upsides to being introverted, particularly in environments you might think it would be a weakness, such as at startups. Indeed, a mix of introverts and extroverts may be the ideal team configuration… but only if handled thoughtfully.

So what are some of the unexpected strengths of introverts?

  • Leading – Many famously great leaders report being introverts; Bill Gates and Abraham Lincoln among them. Perhaps introverts make good leaders because it didn’t come naturally to us, we had to learn it and tend to have a more considered leadership style that we adapt to the needs of those we are working with. We also have less of a tendency to micro manage, choosing instead to let people exercise their abilities and prove themselves to us.
  • Presenting, Explaining – Strangely, I have no difficulty standing up in front of 200 people to give a presentation or to explain a technology. But after presenting, being part of the audience as a crowd can suddenly seem daunting to me. This is perhaps the opposite of what you’d expect.
  • Listening, Insights – Introverts tend to develop good listening skills. We have a tendency to step back from crowds, or to remain at the edges. We also spend more time processing what has been said to us, less time interrupting and, because we naturally need breaks from engaging, we are more likely to spot connections and insights.

But what do introverts find harder, and what might we need adjusting in work environments and culture so we can thrive?

  • Discussion, not Confrontation – Discussions that turn into confrontations, or environments that verge on being boisterous, can be tough for introverts. We tend to retire rather than engage, feeling shut down rather than fired up. The precise opposite of how extroverts react. When discussions stick to facts, rationales and explanations rather than the raising of voices, introverts can actively and even energetically engage and, as mentioned above, may have an entirely different set of valuable insights to offer. Conversations can still be very animated and productive.
  • Space to Recharge – We tend to need time in which we are likely not to need to engage with others, so we can digest, consider and recharge. We also need the physical space to do that in. If an environment is socially charged non-stop, introverts can rapidly be worn down, drained and become detached.
    Good environments allow a mix of engagement and focus, with meetings and work spaces kept separate where possible. Some would say this limit on engagement is a downside, preferring constant communication instead, but I’d say it naturally timeboxes interaction and forces more considered work to be scheduled. No-one, not even extroverts, can stay engaged, communicative and effective the whole time. Open-plan spaces can be a drain on everyone, not just introverts.

So perhaps the strengths we’re recruiting for in fast-paced startup environments might occasionally come aligned with a personality trait we’ve usually considered to be a weakness: introversion.

Introverts comprise up to one-third of the total workforce, so getting things right for a mix of personality types could be a significant win for startups looking to build great teams and great places to work. And if startups can get this right, the wider corporate world might follow.