Updated: Jul 11, 2020
Introvert? Stressed at Work? Answers are Here!
Armed with a Finance degree, I never actually held a Finance role but worked in various Supply and Trading roles at Shell Oil for 30 years. As a kid growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, I can't say I always wanted to work in the oil patch, but in 1988 I was excited to learn the oil business. My first roles were analytical and logistical, moving oil and gasoline from point A to B.
However, as my performance warranted, I rose into roles of greater responsibility and impact. Suddenly, by the mid-90's I was promoted to commercial trading roles. While the tasks were exciting and had the potential to provide significant financial impact for Shell, the jobs also relied upon increasing levels of engagement...with co-workers, managers, and especially with industry cohorts.
Though I treasured many of the relationships and close teams as I rose into supervisory positions, the level of conflict and the call for thinking on my feet honestly exhausted me daily. During my tenure, I certainly did learn more about who I was...about my introversion. But I found it very hard to arm myself with the tools to use my introversion to succeed. Instead, I embraced a "fake it 'til you make it" approach. I did generally succeed, but the cost was high. My stress level was through the roof. As a result my health degraded and I sought very unhealthy means of coping with all this stress. A by-product of all this was my family who basically got the "scraps" from me once I dragged through the front door most weeknights and collapsed on the couch.
To be clear, I don't blame Shell. Honestly, I found Shell to be a caring employer in most every way...for health and safety, for the environment, and for people and the staff in particular. Largely, my struggles were my own. Rather than feel like an outsider, constantly out of my comfort zone, how could I embrace my own introversion and thus find contentment? Shell, like most every other large company, didn't realize that the difference between employee personalities, specifically introverts and extroverts, was a dynamic that needed to be understood and reconciled to tap all the strengths of the full workforce.
In retirement, I've had the opportunity to reflect, to learn, and to recognize some of my actions that worked at times, as well as those items that I definitely should have changed. Now I can pass on these lessons to other introverts so that they may succeed in corporate America without the trauma and pain I had to endure. Frankly, I think many of my tips may apply to extroverts as well. Besides, it would certainly help for those more outgoing and boisterous at work to better understand their more reserved, thoughtful co-workers.
So here's my TOP TEN SURVIVAL TIPS for INTROVERTS:
HAVE CONFIDENCE- you are not a "broken extrovert" as some websites claim. You are a valuable person who's voice must be heard. You bring thought, balance, creativity, organization, care, and determination to the workplace. Don't be silent.
PLAN- schedule meetings and use the advanced notice and agendas to consider your points in preparation for those meetings.
DOWN TIME- be sure to create your own down time during the day. Take a walk. Have lunch by yourself. It's okay. This will re-energize you for the rest of the day.
TEAM CHEMISTRY- perhaps the most critical role is hiring staff for your team. Be involved. Get others from the team involved. Be picky. Assess the critical roles for your team and ensure you have staff that can meet these objectives. You, as the manager, should not be expected to have all these skills yourself. No one does. So round out the team with diversity (in every sense of the word). For me, I wanted to be sure I had at least one person with team/industry experience on teams I joined, at least one with deep technical expertise, and most importantly at least one extroverted, people-person who could strike up conversations and develop deep connections. Building strong teams includes filling the gaps.
SMALL GROUPS- when possible, meet with people in small groups rather than large audiences which can be overwhelming.
COCKTAIL PARTY STRATEGY- for me, going to these gatherings and trying to interject myself into conversations and then extricate myself later was horribly demoralizing. Thus, on the same lines as #5, first rationalize which Cocktail Parties, or very large industry gatherings, you truly must attend. Come in with a strategy...who do you want/need to meet and what topics do you want to cover...and a buddy to wander the floor with you. Once you complete your agenda, you may go. To be candid, you won't be missed and you won't be missing anything critical by leaving at your leisure.
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY- our bodies are honest reflections of the stress we hold. Whether we realize or want to acknowledge the stress in our life, if the pressure is becoming insurmountable, it will show. At the peak of my stress in London, I had Sciatica down my left leg, Shingles, back pain, Rosacea (face rashes), Seborreheic Dermatitis (scalp redness), and gained 30 pounds in two years. My doctors told me what I didn't want to admit or deal with, my stress level was too high and the physical repercussions would only recede once I relieved the source of the stress. Not surprisingly, all these have cleared up without meds since I retired 😌.
HEALTHY COPING SKILLS- work can be fun and gratifying. But it is work after all. So whether you are an introvert or extrovert, find ways to decompress and manage your stress in a healthy way. Well before I had even heard of "introversion," I had found over-eating and alcohol binging. I used these loyal escapes throughout much of my career. Only late in my career was I able to replace these with a healthy dose of exercise, down time, reading, and quality family time as part of a healthy work/life balance.
JOB MATCH- I'm all for stretching out of one's comfort zone. But if doing so makes your stress level untenable and healthy coping skills still don't help, perhaps it's time to find a different role that best leverages your unique and wonderful skills. As a teen, I loved journalism...the writing, the solitude, the creativity. However, I was steered into business for more practical and financial reasons. I had many great moments in my 30-year career and am very thankful for the people and support I generally received at Shell. I'm also proud of our teams and what we accomplished over the years. But I still wonder if different roles would have produced greater work/life balance and personal happiness and self-esteem that I searched for much of my adult life.
INTROVERT GROUP- at many companies including Shell, several diverse cultural groups have formed (Asian, African-American, LGBT, etc) to provide support for these staff members and help them navigate the challenges on their path to reach their potential. The groups also serve as a resource for educating those that didn't necessarily fit the demographics of the group. Companies should have Introvert Groups as well...for the same purpose. Especially for younger, newer staff, such coaching and mentoring could make a great difference, not only in managing stress at work, but also in navigating the corporate ladder and in educating the extroverts that just naturally tend to command the room in most corporate settings.
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