Thoughts from the quiet side of the room

BBDO exec Paul Reilly on why nurturing introverts is crucial for better work.


By Paul Reilly

Luckily I don’t do it much, but I hate when I exit interview someone I don’t know well, and he or she reveals an insight about either improving process, organization structure or creative that hasn’t been raised before.

You know, that introvert who was a solid player but never became a star, and now that they’re leaving you realize how much you’ve underestimated them?

And you regret it. It’s your fault as the manager – partly theirs, but mostly yours.

The marketing world has become such a collaborative culture that we assume everyone will find their way to contribute to teamwork in their own way. And introverts usually do.

Email helps. Communicating electronically levels the playing field a little, at least in the day-to-day.  It’s how they can contribute beyond that which must be drawn out. And some people just need more drawing out than others.

The thing that makes me feel worse about this is that I’m an introvert too. You’d think I’d be better at spotting the quiet person who may have more to say than he or she lets on. I spent years waiting for someone to ask me what I thought. I did have a lot to say.

We’re a culture based on extroversion. The hero, the star, the magnet. And that really works a lot of the time. Extroverts can be great leaders. They’re charismatic, they generate energy and they help people overcome doubts. What’s not to love?

Well, yes, there’s the tendency to maybe claim a little more credit than they deserve, and yes, they do tend to take a lot of time talking about themselves (David Brooks of the New York Times calls this the narcissistic loop – that tendency to bring all discussion back to themselves).

One note for extroverts to remember: you’re not all charismatic. Just because you dominate conversation doesn’t make you interesting. Sometimes you’re just dominant. This drives introverts deeper into their shells, if only for the peace and quiet.

But back to the introverts. I think introverts may actually be the majority in the marketing world. The fact is that a person notices more the less he or she is talking. They make connections to things that they’ve been storing away for years.

I love this graphic from The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney that provides a glimpse into the mind of an introvert (although it paints extroverts as more shallow than most are).


We introverts have a couple of ways of contributing. Some of us get over our diffidence by drafting complete plans ourselves before sharing them with others. That’s great – maybe not perfectly efficient, but, hey, it moves things along. Others will find someone they can talk to one-on-one (we’re not fantastic at speaking up in crowds) where they can share their thoughts and spark someone else to help them take action.

Introverts are often much more anarchic, creative and disruptive than extroverts. They are less satisfied by the status quo (where we’re not the stars anyway) and can have more breakthrough ideas. That may be why so many great entrepreneurs and creative people are introverts.

The bottom line is that it’s really management’s job to provide a comfortable outlet for their ideas.  Our companies and our clients will benefit. We risk losing smart introverts to the tech world where solitary work is seen as productive.

A couple of thoughts from the quiet side of the room:

Don’t force mentorship. Mashing people together doesn’t create conversation for introverts. We’ll cancel.

Have more one-on-ones. As an industry we overstate what can be accomplished in a group.  That’s why we find creative teams hidden in corners of empty meeting rooms. One-on-one debate is a powerful tool. I do one-on-ones all day. It helps introverts open up and it focuses extroverts on the task. Of course by the time I get home I need silence for a few hours. It’s hard being married to an introvert.

Assign them a topic and leave them alone.  Let them decide how to approach it.

Brainstorms are stressful. Offsite brainstorms with break out groups are dreaded. There’s no need for everyone to present so don’t force it. Alternate interactive and solitary activities and read carefully anything that’s submitted. That’s likely where the introverts will deliver their best ideas.

It’s true that introverts don’t like the spotlight. But they’re human. They need recognition as much as anyone. Just don’t make them come to the stage to accept it.

PaulPaul Reilly is chief operating officer at BBDO Toronto.

Featured image via Shutterstock