Ignoring the Introvert – Why even tech companies get it wrong

There is a certain meeting that is a staple at many tech companies – the user experience design review. It typically involves a designer or product manager presenting the design for a feature while managers, engineers and anyone with a suitable weapon proceed to beat the unfortunate presenter for an hour.

The other day I attended such a meeting, and noticed something intriguing. As our designer shared a solution for a particularly tricky interface challenge the room was silent except for a few voices.

Two senior managers dominated the conversation – providing insightful suggestions with rapid-fire certainty. In fact, their feedback was so fast flowing that barely a short pause was felt before the feedback was picked up again.

For just a moment one of the more soft spoken engineers seated in the back was able to get a thought out into the room. As it so happens this particular engineer has a tremendously strong sense for design and a natural ability for balancing engineering speed with elegant user experience. I was sitting there, thinking to myself, “Isn’t it unfortunate that he hasn’t had an opportunity to provide more feedback. I’m sure his insights would be valuable.”

Later in the day this event was still bothering me, and I thought about another of the engineers on my team who wields design deftly and a words with more measure. I’ve seen that at times it is difficult for him to have an impact appropriate to his experience.

Why is it so easy to ignore the introvert?

I know for sure there is no malicious intent, or any desire to exclude opinions. In fact on my occasions people have gone out of the way to foster diversity in perspectives. I think there are a few reasons why even those in the tech industry inadvertently ignore those who are introverted:

  • Everyone has great ideas: Most of your coworkers are smart, insightful and have relevant contributions to make in any meeting. It’s easy to have productive discussions that have the appearance of incorporating multiple perspectives while in reality only listening to a few voices.
  • The extroverts rise in the ranks: Even at tech companies, the most outgoing have the largest networks and are able to build support for their ideas among more people. ┬áIf your company is good these folks will have technical acumen as well, and their impact will be felt more broadly than a highly skilled introvert.
  • It’s hard to tell a high ranking extrovert with great ideas to shut up: I know, I’ve run meetings where I felt like only a few participants were being heard and I struggled to give everyone a chance to speak.

Including the introverts

All is not lost though, it’s possible to let those with quiet brilliance shine too:

  • Give them space to speak: If you see someone who is introverted trying to comment, give them a chance. Tell the room you’d like to hear from them, and then pause to let them collect their thoughts. Don’t rush them, or try to interrupt them, or complete their sentences. You might be buzzing at a hundred miles and hour – draw on your patience and they just might give you an idea that will save an hour of discussion.
  • Let them review beforehand: Introverts can be more deliberate, and thoughts take time to coalesce. Let them comment to you one on one, or if it’s a document, share it early so they have a chance to prepare. Speaking up can be difficult enough, without the added pressure to quickly internalize new concepts.
  • Slow down: If you’re in a fast paced, pressure cooker environment deliberately tap the brakes every now and then. Repeat a suggestion to make sure everyone has heard it, and give the introverts time to digest the stream of conversation.
  • Call on an introvert: When you know someone is an expert in an area don’t wait for them to butt in – give them an opportunity to share by calling on them. You need to be careful though, if they’re uncertain or don’t know the answer you’ll be placing them in a difficult position.

I consider myself an introvert and for years I was ashamed of this fact. I even took Toastmasters for five years to prove just how extroverted I was. All it did was make me good at public speaking, it didn’t change who I am. I’m slowly realizing that being an introvert is okay too.

As a product manager I’m often placed in situations where I can make the work environment more welcoming for introverts. I lead meetings, drive feature implementation and work across many teams. I try to be inclusive, but I don’t always do a good job. Every now and then it’s helpful for me to be the quiet voice in the room unable to get her opinion heard. It reminds me to pay special attention, and include the introvert.

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