Introverts at Work: Why You Withdraw and One Way to Cope

Understanding how companies can spark introversion can help create conversations that move from protection to innovation.

learn more about Judith E. Glaser

By Judith E. Glaser

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"That's not what I meant."

If you've ever had that thought in the workplace, you've likely considered two choices: To clarify the situation or hold your tongue. Those who hold their tongues often do so out of habit to protect themselves, a pattern that develops when work culture leads drives staffers to feel belittled, embarrassed or devalued. In an instant, a smart, accomplished person – even an outspoken person -- can suddenly find themselves withdrawn. Without meaning to or even knowing about it, acompany loses the voice of a valued member.

Preventing such situations isn't easy. They're formed by companies' unique cultures. But understanding what drives these patterns can help you better foster the kind of communication that leads to co-creation and innovation.

Withdrawal can be a reaction to a number of universal fears: Being excluded, being rejected, being judged or feeling stupid. Feared implications form hidden and imagined threats that elevate cortisol levels and weaken our immune systems. When we live in fear, we withdraw. We avoid risks, hold our tongue and even bully and intimidate.

Related: Leaders: It's Time to Fix the Way You Listen

In this environment, there can be no innovation. People turn away rather than toward others for help and can't move into co-creative conversations. The need to belong becomes so powerful that we often give up our opinions and beliefs in order to fit in.

To change these patterns fear must be replaced by trust. When we're comfortable, our heartbeat becomes more coherent, sending signals to the brain to relax, open up, and share. That sharing is the only way to close the gap between what we're thinking and what others are thinking about what's real, not to mention what's smart, right, and fair.

To foster sharing, it's important to foster connections with others and remind one another that we're more alike than we think. To do just that, try to find five things in common with co-workers, people you disagree with or even people you're meeting for the first time. You can do this formally, in small groups to "break the ice,' or on your own, when your courage to connect is low. Go beyond the obvious – things people can see, such as hair color or eye color. But instead look for answers for something beyond the surface, likes and dislikes you both might share.

Related: Identifying Your Conversational Blind Spots

Once you've found those five things, ask yourself: Do you feel warm toward this person – or cold? Warmth means you've activated oxytocin – the bonding neurotransmitter in your brain, which makes it easy for even introverts to engage without fear.

Think also about the kinds of questions you've asked that generate that level of connectivity -- open-ended discovery questions, or closed-ended confirming questions? Open-ended questions activate the part of the brain that has insight, empathy, trust, and co-creation. These questions make it easier to feel friendship, as open up and "share and discover' more with them.

Lastly, consider the quality of your interactions during this exercise. Would you spend more time with this person or people in the future? Good conversations – ones where we share and discover – make us feel safe. The brain maps these talks and also maps it to the people – so we look forward to seeing them again and sharing and discovering more. Consider that as you approach situations at work and find ways to draw more people into conversations, especially if you are the one that needs to be drawn in. When staffs trust each other enough to share ideas freely, they are poised to build something new and innovate.

Editor's note: To clarify our meaning, the word "introvert" has been replaced with its dictionary meaning, "withdrawn" to avoid confusion the psychological type defined by Carl Jung and popularized to mean one who prefers to direct his or her energies to their inner world.

Judith E. Glaser

CEO, Benchmark Communications

Judith E. Glaser's latest book is best-seller "Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results." She is Chief Executive Officer of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and Chairman of WE Institute. Her clients range from IBM and Bank of America to American Express and Target. 

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