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Dec 23, 2020

Many introverts find that they’ve got some extra work to do to make a good impression on the job. An introverted employee can come across to others as harder to get to know, inhibited, disengaged, or even aloof. For Black women, things can be even more complicated, particularly if they’re in leadership positions or on a leadership career path. 

Introversion in Leadership

Before we dive into this issue fully, let’s talk about what “introversion” means according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) framework, and how it influences leadership style. Contrary to popular belief, introversion doesn’t mean being shy. Rather, people with a preference for introversion are energized by spending time in their inner worlds with their thoughts. They’re usually more selective about the number of people they spend time with, and are often viewed by others as private or reserved. 

However, since leaders must connect meaningfully and visibly with colleagues and clients, those who are introverted can come across as too inhibited or low key. 

Black female introverts face an additional layer of doubts when they don’t display characteristics the majority expects. When people expect a sassy, bold, dramatic, and highly communicative bearing, Black introverted women can leave the impression of being aloof, nonchalant, and unfriendly. Consequently, they often must work double-time to overcome misperceptions, masquerading as extraverts to make others feel comfortable with them. 

This is especially true when starting a new position. We recently heard from a group of respected panelists on the topic of being Black and introverted in leadership who asserted that the need to put forth considerable effort to make others feel comfortable with them as new hires is particularly acute among Black introverted women.

Overcoming Stereotypes

Let’s go back to the Black women stereotypes:

  • Sassy and bold
  • Dramatic and overly expressive
  • Overly talkative or loud
  • Comedic, constantly joking and teasing
  • An “open book” that freely share thoughts, concerns, fears, and emotions

It goes without saying that these traits don’t accurately reflect any group. In the case of Black female leaders, the behavior and demeanor of introverts can be very different than expectations. Black women preferring introversion may have to fight being viewed as:

  • Aloof, nonchalant, impersonal, and generally difficult to read
  • Dispassionate, uninterested, and moody  
  • Lacking in soft skills, especially interpersonal communication
  • Disengaged non-team players who are not committed to the work or the organization  

Perhaps even worse, the fact that these individuals may not be as forthcoming with their ideas and thoughts may leave them viewed as unintelligent. 

Furthermore, they will often face these issues within the Black community, where they have to fight being perceived as stuck up or “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside) because they don’t display expected characteristics. 

Extroverts in Disguise

From hard experience, many Black introverted women — including a co-author of this article — have learned how to counter these perceptions and thrive in extraversion-oriented work cultures. To excel, they perform not only their normal responsibilities but also expend energy on things like displaying characteristics that the majority expects to make others feel comfortable with them. 

The good news, however, is that while all leaders with a preference for introversion have to regularly adopt extraverted behaviors, this doesn’t necessarily have to last for an entire career. We hear Black introverted women say that proving themselves is particularly important in the early stages of a new role and that successfully doing so allows them more room to honor their authentic self as others get to know them. Many times (assuming a non-toxic work environment), they can be their more authentic introverted selves within six to 12 months.

But there are caveats. They must also:   

  • Prove themselves as leader and and earn trust by flexing beyond introversion tendencies to pursue new responsibilities and projects 
  • Secure a big win within the first 30 to 60 days so that others feel their being hired was justified 
  • Build strong working relationships from the start, and nurture them throughout their tenure

Leveraging Introversion

The fact that Western business culture prizes extraversion doesn’t mean that colleagues won’t also find value in introversion-based strengths. In fact, introverted behaviors can be an incredible asset to leaders and their employers. That’s because introverted individuals tend to: 

  • Listen more than talk
  • Observe the situation before interjecting opinion, taking in body language and other non-verbal cues 
  • Spend more time in reflection, developing ideas and feedback they would like to share

Indeed, much of leadership training involves helping extraverted leaders to flex their personality preferences to these very behaviors, or to recognize these tendencies in others and see the value they lend to the workplace

Striking a Balance

Our sense from all we’re learning about the challenges that introverted leaders face is that a core challenge is to meet others’ needs (or expectations) while remaining true to and honoring one’s preferred way of being. Demonstrating that you are willing to listen and quick to observe and think before acting will go a long way toward engaging different kinds of people. Likewise, leaders who encourage teammates to take the spotlight for their contributions and are thoughtful about the input they provide situations will undeniably demonstrate value at their organization.

Ultimately, striking the right balance between extra- and introverted behaviors will help all leaders stay true to who they are, as well as overcome some of the barriers especially faced by Black introverted women.