When I turned 18 I applied for a volunteer position at the Richmond Crisis Centre. This was quite out of character for me as I’d kept a low profile throughout high school and had never participated in any groups. The crisis centre was recruiting volunteers for the help line and on impulse I applied. Initially I was told that I wasn’t a suitable candidate, perhaps because of my quiet nature. But not long after that initial interview I was surprised to receive a second phone call, this one inviting me to begin training for the crisis line position.
I never did find out what caused the volunteer coordinator at the Crisis Centre to give me a second chance but that experience changed my life and led me to a successful career in social service and health care.
Back then I had no idea that I was an introvert and I doubt that the volunteer coordinator took my personality into account when deciding to enlist my help. Today we have a much better understanding of the different personality types but there is still a need for education and awareness.
In 2002, when Marty Olsen Laney wrote The Introvert Advantage, it was believed that only one-third of the general population had introverted tendencies. But in a 2010 article in Psychology Today, Nancy Helgoe noted that introverts make up 50% of the U.S. population. Why the discrepancy? According to Helgoe, “Our perceptual biases lead us to overestimate the number of extroverts because they are noisier and tend to hog the spotlight.”
In her best-selling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes about the “extrovert ideal” or “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight." For much of the past 100 years it was believed that the “extrovert ideal” was the norm. Unfortunately this belief is still very much alive.
The following example, taken from the high school text book, Examining Physical Education for AQA, written by Kirk Bizley, illustrates just how pervasive the “extrovert ideal” is:
People can be divided into two identified types:
- Introverts—these are people who are quiet and self-centered, not high in confidence, not looking to lead
- Extroverts—confident and outgoing people with high opinions of themselves, they tend to be leaders
In reality, many introverts describe themselves as social, creative and, yes, dynamic.
Checking your assumptions and learning as much as you can about introverts are positive first steps toward engaging them in your organization.
What is introversion?
How introverts access and manage their personal energy is one of the main characteristics that differentiate them from extroverts. Introverts may enjoy facilitating meetings, working with pre-school children or organizing events but it’s important to remember that introverts who push themselves to be more social and outgoing will need time to recharge their batteries throughout the day. Introverts have a greater need for down time and they may take longer than extroverts to reconstitute themselves once their energy has been depleted. What constitutes “alone time” for one person will be different for someone else.
According to the Myers-Briggs foundation one of the major differences between introverts and extroverts is where they put their attention and get their energy. Extroverts tend to like spending time in the outer world of people and things while introverts prefer to focus inwardly on ideas and images. The personality traits of introversion and extroversion exist on a continuum with most of us falling somewhere in the middle.
Introversion and shyness are often confused with one another. But the two are not the same! Shyness is a fear and avoidance of social situations. Unlike introverts who feel energized by spending time alone, shy people often want to connect with others but are afraid to do so. Both introverts and extroverts can be shy.
Burnout is a potential problem for all of us, and there is some evidence that introverts are more prone to burnout than extroverts (source the Atlantic). Burnout has been described as a state of chronic stress and frustration that leads to feelings of cynicism and physical and emotional exhaustion and can have negative consequences for individuals and the organizations they are involved with.
In 2008 Christina Maslach, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and Michael Leiter, professor of organizational psychology at Acadia University discovered that the perception of fairness is the tipping point that determines whether or not people are likely to burn out.
I believe that this research has implications for how we manage introverted volunteers. Because of their quiet natures and the fact that they don’t like to promote themselves introverts may feel that they are being treated unfairly compared to their extroverted team members.
The following is a quote from one of the participants in an on-line survey that I conducted while doing research for my book The Dynamic Introvert:
"Introverts are definitely not as high profile in the workplace as extroverts who tend to be noticed and rewarded more than introverts. Introverts often seem to be “ignored” or passed over because they are not as visible as extroverts."
Here are some additional ideas to help volunteers reduce stress and prevent burnout:
- Ensure that they are qualified for the positions that they have applied for
- Help them to gain the knowledge and skills that they need
- Provide adequate time to deal with the demands placed on them
- Provide emotional support
- Give them control over decisions that affect their immediate work
- Recognize their efforts
As volunteers, introverts and extroverts contribute in different ways. What is important is that you demonstrate how valuable their contribution is to your organization. When it comes to recognition, some extroverts may prefer being the center of attention, while many introverts want to be recognized quietly without the fanfare that typically accompanies many volunteer recognition events. When in doubt ask!
Today’s volunteers are your organization’s future leaders but only if their potential is recognized and you provide opportunities for development.
In a 2011 CharityVillage article, Susan Fish wrote, “Introverts may appear to be shy and retiring but they are involved in and contributing to non-profit organizations everywhere, and they have often underutilized strengths.”
One of the challenges that organizations face is recognizing this fact and providing introverts with opportunities to develop their leadership skills. A second challenge for organizations is that those in leadership positions may assume that extroverts make better leaders because they are outgoing, enthusiastic and quick thinking. Remember the “extrovert idea” discussed earlier?
Perhaps the most important leadership skill is the ability to stop and reflect before taking action. Reflection can lead to better decisions, improved problem solving and enhanced learning. But as introverts have discovered, in our hyperactive world, stopping to reflect on one’s experiences can be taken as a sign of weakness.
Here are some additional strengths that are characteristic of quiet leaders. Quiet leaders,
- Consider ideas before expressing an opinion
- Take time to prepare for important meetings
- Analyze information and situations
- Pay attention to detail
- Act and react calmly
- Are interested in what others have to say
- Appear comfortable with silence
- Are naturally disposed to use a “coach approach”
It is tempting to recruit introverts for volunteer positions that require little or no socializing, for example: grant writing, web design, research etc. And many introverts will normally gravitate toward these opportunities. But don’t assume that all introverts want to work on their own. Many of us like to socialize and would become frustrated if expected to spend all day behind a desk.
Since many introverts like to have as much information as possible before they take action, doing something as simple as posting advice for potential volunteers on your organization’s website can go a long way toward recruiting and engaging introverts.
On its website Vancity Credit Union offers job seekers advice on how to prepare for an interview. Although not specially targeted toward introverts this type of information helps all job candidates feel more in charge of the interview process.
As nonprofit organizations compete for the best possible volunteer talent everyone benefits by becoming more creative and innovative in their recruitment practices. Here are some questions to get you started:
- How can we word our ads and role descriptions so that they are inclusive of introverts?
- How can the recruitment process be made more personal and unique for each applicant?
Five things that you can do to engage your introverted volunteers:
- Learn as much as you can about the different personality types and provide education to volunteers and staff throughout your organization
- Ensure that there are quiet spaces for people to work on their own
- Provide regular breaks
- Provide mentoring, coaching and ongoing training
- Individualize your recognition programs
As volunteer leaders we can strengthen our organizations and ensure that every volunteer is able to contribute based on his or her preferences, talents, skills and experiences.
Lesley Taylor, M.Ed. is a writer, adult educator and leadership coach. She is the author of The Dynamic Introvert: Leading Quietly with Passion and Purpose. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.