I sit in the room, eating my lunch alone.
My colleagues are out, enjoying lunch. Having just entered full time work, I thought this was fine. After all, wasn’t work a place where everyone’s preferences was respected?
This may be you.
You struggle to socialise in large groups. You don’t crack jokes that make groups laugh. In fact, when you’re asked to present in front of the large group, your armpits start perspiring, and you desperately wish that they would stop showing up as patches on your shirt.
When you reach home, you collapse from sheer exhaustion, only to realise that when you wake up, you still have to go to work.
Rinse and repeat.
Socialise or risk getting kicked out, and being seen as being a poor cultural fit.
So what can you do if you’re an introvert in the workplace today?
The cultural shift towards extroverts
Susan Cain, in her bestselling book ‘Quiet’, observed how the workplace has shifted towards favouring extroverts. People who are loud, funny, and gregarious.
Ever since the word ‘teamwork’ came into play, it’s almost as if deep, quiet, independent work doesn’t count for much anymore.
And it counts against you, as you’re seen as being quiet and unsociable.
What do you do if you’re like that?
Recognise that there’s nothing wrong with you
It’s tempting to think that you’re the problem. Especially when your boss walks up to you and reminds you to take greater effort to interact with colleagues, and make friends with them.
You’re not the problem. You’re just in a context where you’re disadvantaged.
Beating yourself over your difference is not going to help. Rather, a better way might be to celebrate how unique and special you are.
Some thing that can build your self esteem is the love letter to celebrate your qualities, especially when you’re low on confidence.
Protip: Find the connector in the groups
But what if you don’t even like interacting with people?
The extroverts seem to be those that can easily form networks, form teams, and have great workplace relations with most people. What can introverts do?
Grace Teo-Dixon, a lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, shared this.
Introverts can build their own networks. It’s just built differently.
They build them in small groups. Small groups are okay for them. But build lots of little small groups! This doesn’t require a whole heap of maintenance.
We have this theory called social network theory. You have people called ‘nodes’, or structural holes . Or in Hokkien parlance, your ‘lobangs’.
It’s always good to be in contact with a lobang. For an introvert, keep in touch with these people. If you only like talking to one person, then make it a ‘lobang-person’. They connect you to other people.
So one of the first ways is to find the connector in the group. Rather than forcing yourself to make friends with everyone, make friends with the one person through whom many relationships in the company are connected to.
Be honest with your colleagues
But your colleagues might also think,
Why is this guy such a snob? He doesn’t even want to spend time with us.
Why is he not eating with us? Does he not like us? How did we offend him?
One thing that helps is being honest. Adrian Tan, a Human Resources Expert, spoke about this in the podcast ‘Work It’, where I shared about how I didn’t know how important eating lunch with colleagues was.
Here I paraphrase, but he says,
In my previous company, there was someone like that. But he came out to tell us, his colleagues, that this was just how he was. And that he didn’t enjoy eating lunch with others, and preferred to take the time to rest.
Being honest and saying when you’re being introduced,
Hey, I know that I seem quiet. But I’m naturally introverted. So please don’t be offended if there are times when I don’t eat with you. I just need the time to recharge.
You will see quiet and understanding nods from the rest.
Because there are bound to be other introverts who just haven’t come out of the closet yet.
Start from confidence in smaller groups
Then you have strong and weak ties. Have a couple of strong ones. You can keep the rest weak, via LinkedIn, or social media.
I will say to the introvert, don’t discount yourself. At some point, you can come out, have a couple of good friends. In the workplace, you don’t have to be pals with everyone.
But you need to know who you should be in contact with in order for your work to get done. And if you don’t like networking activities, then only go to those which have purpose. You don’t have to be a social butterfly, but you need to be seen for people to remember you.
This means that even if you don’t like making friends in large groups, take time to ask them in twos or threes to have meals with you. Have those deeper conversations you enjoy over dinner.
Take time to be vulnerable in small groups
During a tough month at work, I remember two colleagues heading for dinner.
I had never joined them before. And I was scared they would find me awkward, and politely reject me.
But I asked.
And over dinner, I shared how difficult it had been for me to be subject to an investigation, to be given a Performance Improvement Plan, and even to not have any job offers.
That conversation sparked a much closer relationship over the last 6 months of my job, and helped me to see that I wasn’t alone in my journey.
Start from faith, and not fear
Grace ends with this.
The majority has shifted. There are a lot more introverted, sensitive people now than we used to, hence the books by people like Cain.
You’re likely to find a whole bunch of people who are like you.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t operate out of fear. It’s better to move from a position of confidence. Because to me, fear is where you always back off from something. And at some point, you’re going to back off to a point where you do nothing. You’re paralysed and yet you want something to change. Wherever you are, if you want something to change, move forward with a measure of courage. Not fear.
Being an introvert looks like a major handicap when you’re expected to stand in front of people, present your best self, and when gosh, life seems like a constant performance.
How do you continue in times like that?
It’s recognising that introversion is good. That introverts think, reflect, and in those quiet moments, create some of the best ideas.
And here’s something you may never have thought of.
For years, whenever I stood up to present, I would barely be able to hold my voice. It would quake and waver.
In university I found the Public Speaking Society. And week after week, I went. Even though I sweat buckets from my armpit (even in winter), and even though I thought people were internally laughing at my dumb oratory.
But one day, I won a speech contest. And moved people to tears. That speech wasn’t great because of how I’d connected with others.
It was great because of how I’d connected within.
That speech was about a homeless man I saw at a train station on a busy Friday night.
That night, it wasn’t his situation I felt pity for. But it was my apathy, that I felt deeply ashamed of.
Overcoming Introversion in the workplace isn’t just about connecting better to others.
It’s about connecting better to yourself.