Collaboration for Introverts: The Myth of the solo-working Introvert

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Almost all the teams I met throughout my career were collaborating too little. Productivity, quality, alignment, and the feeling of belonging rose in every team where we increased the amount of collaboration.

Often, when I suggest shifting towards more collaborative ways of working, I get resistance in the form of the following argument: “Collaboration only works for extroverts. People are different. We have some introverts on the team. They want to work in isolation.”

And it is true: Introverts want to work in isolation, if you make collaboration suck for them.

In my experience, resistance comes from three types of people:

  1. Well-meaning extroverts who have heard or experienced that introverts need more time for themselves and find social interactions draining.
  2. Introverts who have experienced horrible collaboration setups that drained them and prevented them from using their strengths.
  3. People who do not believe in the benefits of collaboration. (Seriously, folks, try it (or read the science)!)

In this article, I want to share my experience making collaboration great for introverts and extroverts.

Definition of an Introvert

Introvert Dear defines an introvert as someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments, feels drained after socializing, and regains energy by spending time alone.

WebMD defines introverts as individuals who feel more comfortable focusing on their inner thoughts and feelings rather than external occurrences. They are typically reserved, quiet, and introspective, preferring calm, solitary environments and gaining energy through solitude and quiet.

It’s important to know that being an introvert or extrovert is just about different personality types; neither is better or worse. It’s not a clear-cut thing — people can fall anywhere on the spectrum from very introverted to very extroverted. This is only one aspect of a person’s personality.

Side-note: I am an extroverted introvert/ambivert . Big gatherings with many unfamiliar faces stress me out, and I do not like small talk. Chaotic and loud meetings drain me, and I need some time to recharge afterward. I like listening and understanding others and can talk eagerly about topics I’m comfortable with or when necessary. If I’m alone for too long, I start to feel lonely.

The seeming contradiction that isn’t one

Many definitions of introversion mention disliking group work as a sign of being an introvert. This makes sense as group work can be noisy, chaotic, and messy, making it challenging for introverts to participate. They don’t see any benefits in these interactions.

Interestingly, many introverts, including the shy ones I know, prefer working in pairs or teams, especially in programming tasks. How does this add up?

The best explanation I can offer is collaboration != collaboration. Not every collaboration is the same, and there are considerable differences in the quality and benefits of collaboration. Thus, their appeal to introverts will vary.

The question every team member should ask themselves and the team is: What can we do to make our collaboration more inclusive and meaningful?

Meaningful and Inclusive Collaboration

This section contains six things we can do to make collaboration a better experience – not only for introverts.

1. Having control over the environment

This is more of a pro-remote collaboration argument. I remember the old open-plan office days when I mostly sat with noise-canceling headphones to not feel entirely out of place. I found it incredibly hard to focus on collaboration with my team when other people were around us. This was stressful.

This has completely changed since working remotely. Only the people involved in the collaboration are in the video call, and there is much less stimulation, noise, and distraction.

Remote work lets introverts set up a comfortable environment for themselves. They can reduce distractions, like muting Slack, to entirely focus on their current task and work well with a small team.

2. Stable teams

Teams often change as new projects start, but having stable teams for several months has advantages. Team members get to know each other better, and introverts have time to get comfortable and open up.

Other introverts I know find it easier and even enjoyable to work in teams where they know others well. This makes sense, as introverts typically prefer meaningful conversations with friends over casual interactions with strangers.

Though there might be a need to create new groups for specific projects, people in these groups must spend time getting to know and feel comfortable with each other. This helps introverts and shy individuals, making it easier for them to speak up and contribute.

3. Take your time

Building a strong team can take time, especially when members are new to each other. This process shouldn’t be hurried but should be considered a natural part of working together. As I mentioned in my article about collaboration for team building, starting slowly and ramping up collaboration as the quality improves can be a viable approach.

Furthermore, reflecting on the collaboration and how to make it less exhausting, more enjoyable, and more productive is essential.

4. Allow for preparation

Introverts often tend to think thoroughly before sharing their ideas and perspectives. This cannot be easy in ad hoc discussions. Some introverts told me that they do not like reaction rounds because they feel put on the spot when it is their turn in the round.

Extroverts usually make quick decisions and share their thoughts, while introverts like to think things through and prepare, often on their own. So, sharing the topic and any relevant material ahead of time helps. This way, people can go through it at their pace, which also helps those who read slowly.

Another thing you can try when it is about specific topics is to start a session with a silent reading time. This also allows people who were too busy upfront to catch-up with the topic and better contribute to discussions.

5. Try different collaboration styles

Many extroverts tend to be more dominant and are at ease interrupting others or filling brief silences quickly. On the other hand, introverts often need a little more time before they chime in. They are good listeners, waiting for a significant pause to share their thoughts. This can make it very hard for them to speak up when surrounded by extroverts, a situation that shy individuals also find challenging.

Furthermore, many people speaking over each other is hell for introverts. It means too much stimulation and noise, and it will be impossible for them to focus and not get exhausted.

To make collaboration more inclusive, the team can do a couple of things:

1. Clear roles in team programming sessions

In team programming sessions, having one driver and one navigator while switching roles every 10–15 minutes is good practice. Only the navigator speaks and may invite others if unsure about the direction. The driver mainly asks clarifying questions if they do not understand the navigator.

2. Use the raise hand feature

Any noteworthy video conference tool has a raise hand feature. Instead of just speaking up, use this feature and only speak in the order of hand-raises.

Even offline, you can use this feature. Raise your hand, indicating your place in the queue with your fingers. The navigator or facilitator invites people to speak up, following the queuer ordering.

3. Reaction rounds avoid chaos

While reaction rounds might not suit some, they are much better than talking over each other. People follow a circle (for example, on a Miro), and everybody knows exactly when it is their turn. People may say “I skip”, when they do not want to contribute.

Here, it is crucial to normalize the “I skip”. It is far better to skip than to talk nonsense just to say something.

4. Use breakout rooms for bigger groups

Utilize breakout rooms when dealing with larger groups. It can be tough for introverts and shy individuals to speak in front of 10 or more people. The well-known Liberating Structure “1-2-4-all” is effective both online and offline. It lets people think individually, then share their ideas with one person, followed by sharing with three others, and eventually with the whole group.

Furthermore, sharing with more people can be taken over by someone more comfortable speaking in front of bigger groups.

5. Get inspiration from Liberating Structures

Another method to facilitate collaboration in bigger groups can be the Fishbowl, where conversations happen only among a few people, and people can decide when to move in and out of the conversation.

In general, the idea of Liberating Structures is to make spaces more inclusive and less dependent on power gradients and courage.

Many of those structures suit introverts, especially in a remote setup.

6. Reflect and adapt

People are different. And what works for one person might not work for another. What works for one team might not work for another team.

By acknowledging that we are different and there is no one-size-suits-all approach, we are on the right track for outstanding collaboration.

As a team, we should reflect frequently about our ways of collaborating and how to improve them. Together, teams can find remarkably different yet effective ways of collaborating that are enjoyable for everyone involved, no matter their personality.

Conclusion

Creating a collaborative environment for both introverts and extroverts is not just possible, but crucial for a team’s success. By understanding and considering the different needs and preferences of team members, and being open to adjusting our collaborative practices, we can make our workspace more inclusive and productive. Skipping on collaboration can result in missed opportunities and slow down our teams. So, it’s worth the effort to ensure collaboration works for everyone, which in turn enriches the team experience and leads to better results collectively.

Choosing not to collaborate synchronously is an easy escape. Still, it can deprive teams of opportunities to work better, have a higher sense of belonging, enjoy work more, and build better software faster. Choosing not to collaborate is an easy escape with almost catastrophic consequences.

Which practices do you follow to make collaboration more worthwhile and enjoyable for introverts and extroverts alike?

Seeking fresh ideas to boost your collaboration?

Through my Excellence && Happiness Partnership, I offer my expertise to help you build high-performing teams with top-notch collaboration practices, along with technical coaching and mentoring. As your sparring partner, I’ll help you identify biases swiftly and provide fresh ideas to elevate your team’s excellence and happiness, both technically and culturally.

Schedule a free Intro-Call now, and let’s discuss what we can do for your team.

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