For introverts, the frustrating thing about a big, raucous work meeting is the extent to which “intelligence” and “extroversion” are wrongly linked. Since it’s the people who speak up the loudest who have their ideas heard, they’re the ones whose contributions are noted and remembered. Oftentimes, introverts have just as much to say, but aren’t quite as comfortable chipping in their two cents.
In the Harvard Business Review, Renee Cullinan explains that it’s not just introverts who get short shrift during many office meetings — it’s also women and remote workers. She blames this on various forms of unconscious biases that influence the way most office meetings are organized and run.
When it comes to introverts, she writes that the bias in question is that “Smart people think on their feet.” She explains:
Extroverted thinkers are happy to get new information in a meeting and to start making sense of it by talking through it. But introverted thinkers make their best contributions when they’ve had time to process relevant data and space to choose words carefully and share thoughtful conclusions. So while the extroverted thinkers are buzzing away, the introverted thinkers are quiet, still processing the information. Extroverts often misinterpret this silence as disagreement, disengagement, or lack of subject matter expertise, and often don’t make the effort to bring the introverts into the conversation. The meeting ends, people scatter to their next meeting, and the opportunity to think the problem through together has been lost. Over time, the introverts may get demoralized and completely disengage because of their inability to contribute.
So how to make meetings more introvert-friendly? Cullinan offers a few tips: Send out discussion questions beforehand so attendees don’t feel put on the spot; call on introverted employees specifically during the meeting to solicit their ideas (which, it should be said, might have the effect of putting them on the spot — though maybe if participants came in knowing that might happen, it wouldn’t); and “circulate a meeting summary and proactively solicit ideas” after the meeting. Cullinan offers similar tips for making meetings more inclusive for women and remote workers.
Reading Cullinan’s piece, I was reminded of a simple fact about many entrenched workplace norms: A lot of the time, they don’t take into account all sorts of biases that prevent organizations from being more productive, because they have the effect of squelching intelligent voices that don’t fit a certain stereotypical mold. When these voices aren’t heard, fewer ideas are put on the table, there’s less pushback against bad or questionable ones, and the organization suffers.
The example that kept coming up when I reported on my story about why we should kill the cover letter and résumé was so-called “unstructured” interviews, where a job candidate comes in and talks, without a set agenda, with a hiring manager or managers. It’s a practice that from a “common sense” perspective makes sense, but it allows all sorts of biases to creep in. Inevitably, hiring managers will gravitate toward people who are not only extroverted, but who are similar to them — who went to the same sorts of schools, come from the same sorts of backgrounds, and so on. This isn’t just discriminatory; it also prevents organizations from hiring the most qualified people by distracting them into hiring less capable ones who seem a good “cultural fit.” The experts I spoke with said that simply asking all candidates the same questions could go a fair way toward disarming this form of bias.
The same thing is going on here, but with meetings: The distraction is the idea that just because someone is loud and outspoken, they’re smarter than — or have better ideas than — their more circumspect-seeming colleagues. So Cullinan’s suggestions shouldn’t be seen as part of some kumbaya agenda to make everyone feel super fulfilled and included. Rather, they should be seen as an effort to simply help organizations function better. After all, Cullinan notes that when she and her colleagues asked employees at a big global bank “When you have a contribution to make in a meeting, how often are you able to do so?,” just 35 percent of respondents said they always felt comfortable piping up. That’s a lot of wasted ideas, a lot of squandered productivity.