There are a ton of great books and blog posts on how to be an effective leader as an introvert. As a recently promoted Technical Program Manager, I thought it would be an opportune time to share my own story on how I survived as an introvert in the corporate world, and tips on how to navigate yours.

Some background on my personality type

In MMOs, I like playing utilitarian support roles. I enjoy playing DPS that can off-heal or the healer that saves lives but also contributes to the damage meters (o/” disc priests). I’m also an INTP. But human personalities are more nuanced than what can be discovered through personality tests. Depending on who you talk to in my life, some would say I’m an introvert and some would say I’m not. Some would say I’m too nice or have no backbone, while others would say I adamantly stick to what I believe in. Some would say I’m shy and reserved, while others would say I’m outgoing and have contagious energy. Some would say I’m strict, while others would say I’m pretty flexible.

The way I react to my environment all depends on the situation I’m in and the people I’m surrounded by. Personalities aren’t all black-and-white but instead you may find that you lean one way in some situations and the opposite way in certain others. Specifically, at work I might give off a certain impression, but a lot of it comes from survival tactics from situations where I felt like I needed to behave a certain way in order to succeed.

Most of my life, I’ve been described by others as “weird” and sometimes a “spaz” — there’s written proof of this in many of my yearbooks where my peers describe me this way.  In my favorite classes, I would sometimes act out and be disruptive. In high school, I became a bit more reserved, but mostly because I was more self-conscious and aware of what I was saying before I said things.  In a class of almost 900 students, there was a very defined social structure and I was not cool nor popular. College was when I really came out of my shell in terms of just being totally comfortable with talking to random people and I was relieved by the fact that people didn’t care how “cool” you were in high school but instead just clicked with other people with similar interests.

When I started my career working at a law library, I was definitely shy and reserved; I think a part of that came from growing up in a family/culture where I couldn’t really relate to adults and needed to show a certain amount of deference to them. At 19, I was working mostly with people at least a decade older than me (aka “adults”). I felt I needed to be seen as “professional” and not crazy nor weird nor loud, especially not at a library, right? (Not true, by the way.) Therefore, I just didn’t say much or find that I had a lot to say. Even when I worked at the corporate office of Urban Outfitters, where it was mostly folks my age, I was still pretty shy until about my 3rd or 4th year there. And by “shy” I mean that I wouldn’t really speak up in meetings — after all, everyone else obviously knew more than I did, right? (Also not true, by the way.) I usually held my opinions until after meetings and just asked questions to my manager until one day, he commented that I always had good questions and that I should bring it up during the meetings instead of holding onto them.

Ask questions

Ask questions while the conversation is happening, if you’re able to. I know that as an introvert, I tend to need extra time to think about and analyze a problem from all sides before coming up with ideas or questions. This is one of the (many) reasons why I ask for and give agendas before meetings — so that others like me can also prepare in advance. But sometimes, a question or idea does strike you in the moment and I would encourage introverts to not hesitate to speak up. A majority of the time, I’ve noticed that if I don’t ask a burning question, someone else asks the same question, or nobody does at all but then everyone asks it to one other after the meeting is over. I think because some introverts are great at observing the world around them, they have enlightening questions to ask, so they should always ask them, not worrying about if it’s a stupid question. Also, don’t preface that with “This might be a stupid question but…” — instead, lead with confidence in your own ability to ask analytical questions.

Help pave the way for other introverts

Help other introverts. Being introverted doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re shy, but for those that are, it’s even more crippling to be in certain social situations. If you find that you’re taking the limelight in stride in a group situation, share that light and ask that person, who hasn’t said a word, what their thoughts are on the topic you’re discussing. There’s the risk that they may not like that, or on the flipside, they might have been waiting for an opportunity to speak but have been getting drowned out by the louder voices in the room. As a somewhat shy introvert myself, I do feel uncomfortable being called out, but at the same time grateful when someone else gives me the opportunity to put my 2 cents in because I usually have a lot of ideas once I get going. By specifically asking someone else for their input — someone who may not have had a chance to speak yet — you are paving the way for more reserved folks to be heard, which is a great way to get diverse perspectives.

Volunteer for speaking engagements

Introverts can be great speakers; they just need plenty of time to prepare in advance. As for me, I can be comfortable in small groups of 2-3 people, but I’d rather speak to a large audience than try to schmooze at a party. I think it’s because if I’m a speaker, I can prepare for it in advance and not have to talk off-the-cuff as much as I would need to at a dinner party where people would be talking to me in real time and me feeling like I need the perfect response. Similarly, when I’m running a meeting at work, I have an agenda, and I come prepared so we can get to the point with an expected outcome so in that way, I may come off authoritative. But when it comes to lunchline banter, I have no idea what to expect, so I mostly prefer to stay quiet and just listen in unless people start talking about something I’m really passionate about. I’m not the best public speaker but practicing does calm the nerves and improves your skills, and I’d highly encourage introverts to lead through public speaking (as contradictory as that sounds).

Keeping your backbone intact as an introvert

You don’t have to conform to the preconceived notion that you have to be mean or adversarial to be assertive. In an ideal world, nobody would have this bias but the reality is that as a woman, I still have to remain likeable while still saying “no” to people. There is an Amazon Leadership Principle that says to have backbone, “they do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion.” However, I have to remain diplomatic for the best results for my teams because as a TPM, I work cross-functionally with many different organizations and keeping a great relationship and communicating well with them is a key part of getting the job done. In my role, I stay flexible without being a pushover by practising nemawashi. From my experience, it works better than being a bulldozer or hitting people over the head with a brick when I disagree with them. One of my old bosses described me as Switzerland — even when heated debates came up, I did not take sides but still tried to drive towards an even-keeled solution. Having backbone is to be persistent and tenacious, and you can either do this with a bag of bricks or a bag of cookies but I guarantee you that teams will be more willing to work with you again if you bring the latter. With that being said, be sure to remain firm and clear about where you stand.

Be uncomfortable

I put myself in uncomfortable situations, if that situation is more important to me than my own comfort. For example, volunteering to speak or teach, or showing up to events that support women in tech or gaming are things I find important to be involved in, but it also sometimes makes me want to crawl into a dark hole. However, I love playing a support role to others’ successes and helping people out, and that is more important to me than staying in my comfort zone so I put myself out there. Sometimes, you just have to dig deep and ask yourself what you value more and draw energy from that to keep you going. You can support others just by showing up.

I hope this helps other introverts see themselves as leaders or helps extroverts understand introverts a little bit better! If it did, “Like” or comment below and let me know if you’d like to see more career-oriented posts. If you want to get updates about my Work Life-related topics, subscribe specifically for that via email or RSS feed.