When Angel Yang got her first job after studying math at university, she quickly realized the role would require her to use more than just technical skills.
As an analyst in an insurance firm, she had to participate in meetings and speak about her work.
Ms. Yang, an introvert who would try to avoid speaking in front of groups, found it debilitating. She dealt with a lot of anxiety in the early days of her career, worrying about what could go wrong. What if she froze in mid-sentence? What if she forgot what she was talking about?
Her job also started during the pandemic, which meant all meetings were online.
“I would think, ‘If I freeze, I can’t even pretend to collect paper. It would just be silence on the line,’” she recalls. “I was stressed.”
While anxiety about speaking up in meetings is common among introverts, Ms. Yang says that, in her experience, preparation and practice can lessen it. The Toronto resident says she’s come a long way in just a couple of years.
“I compare myself to when I first started and see a huge improvement in both confidence and delivery,” she says. “I do presentations fairly regularly now.”
Studies show extroverts enjoy more advantages in the workplace, which puts the onus on introverts to find ways to stand out. And with research showing 30 to 50 per cent of the workforce are introverts, it’s also up to employers to make space for introverts to be seen and heard.
Danny Boyer, a Saskatoon-based leadership coach with Life-Role Development Group, recommends leaders create a workplace where introverts feel comfortable. Options include allocating enough downtime for introverts to recharge or designing the office to give them quiet space where they are likely to do their best work.
He also encourages employers to give introverts time to prepare for meetings and create an environment that helps to draw them into the conversation.
“Give them the agenda [in advance] to allow them to think and not put them on the spot,” he says. “Talk to the person who is introverted and say, ‘Can we share [what you’re working on] at the meeting?’
And don’t assume an introvert doesn’t want to speak up; they may just need a little encouragement. “Just because someone is reluctant to talk in front of people doesn’t mean [they] won’t,” he says.
He also suggests employers play to the strengths of introverts, which may include stronger listening skills and more ability to focus.
Ms. Yang tries to find out in advance what will be discussed at a meeting where she’s speaking, so she can give it some thought and prepare notes. It gives her some confidence that what she’s presenting is important and covers all the bases.
She also visualizes the meeting and questions she might get to help her prepare.
“I realized after working for two years [that] people are more interested in what you say than how you present,” she says. “People value your professional opinion more than the show that you give… I am more confident in my technical skills and professional knowledge than my charm.”
Dre Hyde, a former business analyst now studying project management in Hamilton, has also worked hard to step out of their comfort zone in meetings.
They liken speaking up as an introvert to waiting to jump between the skipping ropes in Double Dutch: “You’re waiting for the right time to go in… and always waiting. You know you have to do it, but the time never comes up.”
There is a risk of not being heard “and having other people’s priorities being the priority,” Mx. Hyde says. “You can also risk other people assuming you have nothing to say, that you just don’t have ideas… You can miss out on a lot. And other people can miss out on you.”
Not speaking out can also negatively affect the business if the introverted person is also a subject-matter expert, Mx. Hyde says.
“It’s a bit of personal responsibility to communicate your ideas.”
They say it can help to have meeting facilitators, where possible, who understand how to best include different voices, including both introverts and extroverts.
For online meetings, that can include encouraging group chats and direct messages for people more comfortable writing their ideas than speaking or using software with a feature that has a “hand up” function, allowing participants to signal when they have something to say.
“If you’re there with somebody who’s very vocal or strongly opinionated, it’s an extra challenge for an introverted person to speak up,” they said, noting it’s also helpful when facilitators offer a communication channel for further thoughts and feedback that comes after the meeting.
“What they definitely shouldn’t do is say, ‘Let’s check in with all the quiet folks,’ or, ‘We haven’t heard from so-and-so in a while,’” Mx. Hyde said. “That’s actually the worst.”