I just went through an interesting training on unconscious bias and one of the most surprising sections had nothing to do with things like race or gender.
It had to do with the fundamental way people process information and share their thoughts.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you speak your thoughts aloud as you have them, energized by the feedback of your coworkers? Then you are almost certainly an extrovert. Or, do you think before you open your mouth, exhausted by the stream-of-consciousness chatter of your coworkers? Then you are most likely an introvert.
Left on their own, business culture is often built to favor extroversion — especially in meetings.
Research has shown that this single differentiating trait, which has nothing to do with capabilities, creativity, intelligence, or job performance, can have profound impacts on how teams communicate and operate.
If an introvert’s organization tends to lean toward extroversion, than even well-meaning extrovert managers may unconsciously reward the talk-it-out-ers while inadvertently sidelining the think-before-you-speak-ers. (That was the take-away from the unconscious bias training.) Indeed, the amount that people talk is often taken as a proxy of expertise— rather than actual subject-matter knowledge or experience.
There’s a ton of research and strategies aimed at making a work environment that’s fair to both types, and levels the playing field for introverts who may not always shine at a meeting-heavy, brainstorm-y company.
For instance, managers can distribute meeting agendas in advance. They can swap brainstorming sessions for shared documents, chat forums, or, to take things analog, sticky notes. These allow for people to respond to things in their own time, not extemporaneously.
Those are all worthwhile strategies, but reshaping the corporate culture may also be out the introvert’s control, especially if they’re an individual contributor.
Hence the need for magic words.
Well-meaning managers may even do one of the most terrifying things to introverts: ask a question in the meeting and then make everyone sit, look and wait for the introvert to answer. Managers may think they are being inclusive, giving space for the quieter types to have their say (and there may be introverts who are fine with this).
But it also has the potential to embarrass the employee and making participation in the company that much harder for the person. Unless the introvert is armed with two magic words: “I’m thinking.”
Extroverts aren’t really looking for an astounding, fully planned idea to fly out of someone’s mouth. They are often simply looking for acknowledgement that the other person has heard them, understands and will respond.
“I’m thinking,” gives introverts the space they need to think, while giving extroverts the immediate feedback they need.
I learned this lesson from my daughter.
She grew up an introvert in a house full of extroverts. The extroverts would grow frustrated with my daughter all day long: What did she want for dinner? Silence. Where did she put that thing? Silence. Do you want to see this movie or that one? Silence.
She actually was responding to our questions, just not out loud. We didn’t realize it because her thoughtful gaze wasn’t our form of communication: words.
After many blow-ups and hurt feelings all around, we all finally realized what was going on. But it didn’t stop us from wanting her to respond immediately to our words and questions.
So we taught her to tell us, “I’m thinking.”
The extroverts were acknowledged and would calm down and chill. The introvert got the space she needed to think and reply. It made communication so much easier and it put control in the introvert’s hands.
So, if you are an introvert who has to deal with extrovert, give these two magic words a try. If you are an extrovert who is managing, working with, or raising introvert kids, ask them to use the magic words. They could be the difference between frustration and teamwork.
Julie Bort is Business Insider’s Chief Tech Correspondent. She’s also the co-author of a once-upon-a-time best selling parenting book: Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids