08 September 2007

For the Introverts

I'm fortunate to be chair of a department in which two of my colleagues are former chairs. The department has grown considerably, and one served for a short term and another for more than a decade, so we have all had rather different experiences as chair, but I'm still quite glad for the chance to talk about being chair of a large department with numerous subfields with people who can picture what it's like. (Side note: I'm discovering that I'm turning into each of my predecessors in different ways--sometimes, I start a task, and think, "oh, this is just like that time when Shorter Term Former Chair asked us to..." or "wait, didn't Longer Term Former Chair once send a very funny memo about this topic?" But that's another post, the ways we internalize leadership styles from others)

I asked my colleagues to meet with me earlier this summer, just to talk about my first year. In the course of the conversation, one of my colleagues said that he is an introvert. I was a little surprised at that, actually; I wouldn't have pegged him for the most extroverted man in the department, but he is so good at organizing groups that I guess I'd always thought of him as reasonably extroverted. My surprise continued when my colleague confessed that as chair he was actually driven crazy by me and a number of our colleagues who never responded to proposals on e-mail, but would rather show up in a meeting and discuss them. "You feed off other people, because you're an extrovert. But for an introvert like me, that was so draining." This brought me up short. Me? feed off other people? I think not. So we sat there, totally surprised to discover we're both pretty intense Is on the myers briggs personality scale. (I think one reason I end up as chair or president of pretty much anything I join is in part because administrative roles give me a job to do, and that makes my shyness manageable. I know what to talk to people about when I'm a leader, and I like that.)

Last year, I posted a bit about my take on department meetings. I am good at running meetings, and I enjoyed how we used them last year as a whole department, but my colleague made me see that I need a more nuanced approach to involving people in decisions. My own approach has been heavily dependent on categorizing colleagues as whiners or not whiners. My goal in structuring a lot of face-to-face conversation was to reduce the impact of whiny colleagues and to create a fair bit of momentum for action so that the non-whiners' approach to work could carry the day (and carry along the whiners, too. Not all my whiny colleagues are slackers--in fact, I can name very few colleagues in my entire college who strike me as consistently slackers. Most do their share, and those less inclined to do a full share can usually be persuaded to rise to the occasion for particular tasks.) My department has a lot of whiners, though, people who like to talk about how busy they are, how overworked they are, how underpaid they are....and while there is often some truth to that, the talking about it does nothing to change it.

What I've been missing, I now see, is a way for introverts in the department to be invited into my processes. There's a certain efficiency to introducting topics in a group, as it lets me see what the issues are on people's minds, and it lets us maximize the power of the group to analyze and divide tasks. But if introverts find those in-the-moment conversations draining, there's got to be a way to work around that. So I think I'll work on the lead-up to meetings more, perhaps distributing documents with issues outlined and some potential options in advance, so that those who wish to formulate thoughts in advance, or write to me privately, can do so. I've always tried to circulate agendas at least a week before, but the department as a whole has gotten sloppy about making draft proposals available early. That needs to change.


ppb said...

You're both right. Introverts prefer to be able to process things before speaking---the fact that you preferred to speak aloud, and some of your peers prefer to send emails is a matter of style, not of "feeding off other people." You probably went into that office already knowing the main points/questions you wanted to make.

What I was taught is that the best way to be sure that the whole group (introverts and extraverts) is included is either to lead up to meetings with information (that the extroverts won't read because you're going to discuss it in person and they're good at that in the moment stuff), OR to have the discussion face to face, and then either follow up individually later with those who were silent, or return to a topic at the end of a meeting.

I tried it once with a committee. We talked about new business a, then moved on to old business b & c, then at the end of the meeting, I said, "we need to finish discussing a and move to a plan of action" and lo and behold all these people who didn't have a thing to say at the beginning of the meeting now had things to say---it just took them time to think through their responses.

But preferring face to face over email---not a type preference.

Rev Dr Mom said...

Interesting. I'm as introverted as you can get and I don't mind meetings if they are productive. But I do like having some info ahead of time, or at least knowing what is going to be discussed.

What makes me nuts are meetings that are pointless and disorganized. But that probably has little to do with being an introvert.

niobe said...

Wow, I must be super-mega-ultra-introverted because I find talking or even listening at meetings to be incredibly stressful. Being forced to attend meetings with any degree of frequency would be enormously unpleasant and there would be no way to make it easier for me. I'd much rather just skip the meetings and let others make decisions without my input.

chichimama said...

That is EXACTLY why I always end up in charge of things, because then I know how I am supposed to talk to people.

Your ideas sound good, good luck!

susan said...

Niobe, I'd never stopped to think about how much some introverts might prefer to just hand over the decision-making rather than interact--my policy wonkishness is at odds with my introversion, so I end up participating a fair bit.

These are great comments, making me think about ways to try to balance a host of factors (whether those of style or personality).

And I totally agree: a badly run meeting is totally awful. We've come off several years of poorly-run department meetings, so it's been very rewarding to get generally positive feedback about the new direction for meetings. (And I know that when there is eventually a new chair after me, s/he will get generally positive feedback from changing something I'm doing now: we're all good at different things, after all).

Arwen said...

I think I'm like you. I don't mind discussion in role, with focus. I will have to keep this lesson in mind.

liz said...

I like your idea of asking for input on the agenda via e-mail -- it allows those who do better in writing to shine and also makes for a shorter meeting.