By John McKenzie
Just for a moment, consider the relationships you have with your coworkers.
Love them, tolerate them or hate them, we all have workplaces. But what kind of places are workplaces? This is a question worth considering because, in large part, workplaces express the relationships forged with coworkers and colleagues. Positive or negative, these relationships define the terrain of our workplaces in important ways.
In my own experience, there is an undeniable correlation between enjoyable workplaces and effective workplaces. There’s a magic that happens when coworkers enjoy working together: work gets done, time flies, fun is had by all. I’ve also experienced workplaces where work relationships are more negative; these places zap energy and drive and diminish results.
I suspect that most workplaces fit somewhere in the middle and look like this: there are groups of people who know each other well and work well together; at lunch they head to the café together and after work they head to the pub; they know each other’s families; they make a point of crossing paths on the weekend; they banter and schmooze with ease. Then, there are the others who prefer a higher orbit. These are the introverts: the quiet ones, the ones happy to keep to themselves, the ones who tend to avoid workplace social initiatives, the ones preferring solitary work, the lone wolves, the ones who, well, always seem to come off as a riddle. Most times, most people are polite or collegial and can come together to work successfully on a particular project or for a particular purpose. And yet, an unspoken suspicion often emerges and then persists, undermining the healthy functioning of the workplace as a whole: “What’s up with the guy that never talks to anyone?”
In the spirit of efficacy, therefore, it’s worth knowing more.
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain addresses the unique qualities that introverts offer, applicable to a wide range of social settings, including workplaces. She also criticizes the fact that we seem to design our workplaces around extroverts, forcing introverts to fit in or get out. Yet, Cain says, introverts think in unusually complex ways and devote additional mental resources to issues of morality and value. Like Cain, I want to encourage greater workplace integration to utilize the particular strengths of introverts and improve workplace health. After all, it’s likely due to their mode of work that these workers may notice things others miss, may pick up on nuance lost on others and are completely competent at their work.
As is usually the case, the key to a greater degree of workplace integration is communication, which takes effort. For the more gregarious — the extroverts — this involves a greater degree of empathy. Trying to get to know how someone feels and thinks in workplace settings isn’t easy and doesn’t come naturally to many, yet the effort will likely deliver considerable dividends, such as the realization that just because someone prefers more time alone doesn’t mean they dislike their coworkers. It also doesn’t mean they don’t value the mission of the organization any less. These insights (and others like it) go a long way to achieving the kind of positive working relationship crucial for a workplace that hums. Keep in mind, there may also be an underlying cause motivating the behaviour. Depression, anxiety and loneliness (whatever the source) are real and serious, and they ought to be given due consideration and attention. Seeking fellowship while respecting boundaries is a difficult balance to strike.
The onus is not only on extroverts, however. Introverts, hear me: leave your comfort zones from time to time. Rightly or wrongly, personal judgements are made on less than reasonable criteria. So get out there, interact with your coworkers and define for yourself ways to demonstrate and reinforce your workplace mettle.
Workplace interpersonal dynamics are complicated. Here are three steps (for extroverts and introverts alike) to take that might be useful in navigating them:
- Instead of assuming that introverts inherently undermine workplace efficacy, look for the ways they enhance it. If you’re not used to looking, they might be hard to spot. Be inquisitive, but respect boundaries to avoid pestering. Instead of assuming that extroverts are cliquish, acknowledge their gift of sociability.
- Relax expectations of workplace social engagement. Social activities might be formal or informal — the year-end party or watching the game in the break room — but there’s always at least tacit observation of who’s there and who isn’t. In the end, it doesn’t matter; you don’t want someone to show up out of obligation anyway. Relax expectations of solitude. Workplaces aren’t monasteries. Some people need interaction as much as others crave distance.
- Have each other’s back. In lots of ways that matter, coworkers aren’t your competition. So, you might as well be mindful of and gauge the apparent general wellbeing of those around you.
So, just for a moment, consider the relationships you have with your coworkers. How would you describe them to someone outside your work network? Are there those you enjoy working with? What makes it that way? Likewise, are there those you find it difficult to work with? Why is it that way? The bottom line is treating coworkers with the basic dignity due to each human being. In so doing, we might just better understand the lone wolf as well as the rest of the pack.
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