I use a whiteboard to start conversations for me.  Yes, it's the normal 2ft x 3ft variety, and no, it doesn't have any special abilities.  What makes it special is the conversation topics people write on it and the interactions I strike up based on it.  A whiteboard is a fabulous conversation starter.

A Lousy Conversation Starter Yields Lousy Conversations

I have a habit of asking coworkers, "How is your day going?"  I mean the question in earnest but inevitably I get the same responses.

Pretty good.
It's going.

I ask a generic question and I receive generic responses.  Although I genuinely want to know how the person's day is going, that doesn't come through in my conversation starter.  The responses give me nothing to work with and no inspiration for follow-up discussion.

I want to walk away from a conversation feeling more connected to the other person, and my lousy question doesn't cut it.

Enter the Whiteboard

Our break room has a whiteboard sitting out in plain view, begging to be written on.  Every week a new question gets posed.  The questions are sometimes silly and sometimes more meaty, but either way they encourage conversation and foster camaraderie.  Throughout the week, people respond to the original question or add witty commentary on earlier responses.

This is a great conversation starter for introverts like me.  There's always a discussion topic at the ready.  I can reference the board and ask a person to describe her own experience with the best burger in town or what board game she liked playing as a child or what book she's read that really impacted her.

The whiteboard lets me dive into specific topics without springing it upon someone.  It's similar to when a person is wearing a unique clothing item or is traveling with a dog or baby.  There's a ready excuse to start a conversation.

So thank you, O Whiteboard, for letting me skip the small talk.

I've long joked that the world would be a friendlier place if we all wore permanent name tags.  Then you could greet people by name and never worry about forgetting a name.  It would be a small step to make socializing as an introvert easier.  But to go a step further, I wish the name tag also listed 3 topics we're passionate about.  Here's why.

One of the hardest parts about socializing as an introvert is getting to the good stuff.  I crave conversation about meaty topics.  I want to hear about your passions and share mine.  I'd love to know what we have in common and how our differing views can challenge each other.

But it's so hard to get to that point.

When I observe extroverts in conversation, it seems like they can connect conversation topics with ease.  They appear never to have a shortage of things to ask or stories to share.  Whereas I never know where to start.  If we've only just met, I don't know what to ask you and I may feel reserved about sharing about myself.

I wish I knew up front what are 3 of your passion topics and you knew 3 of mine.  It'd be so much easier to make a connection if the name tag said:

Hi, I'm Kate!  Talk to me about:

  • The rollercoaster ride of being a Notre Dame football fan
  • Efforts to protect endangered birds
  • How the increased prevalence of Malbec wines is a great thing

Just from those 3 points, you have an insight into my interests.  And it's easy to see where connections can be made because the topics are specific.  You might ask whether I've been to Indiana (I have) or whether I've done much bird-watching (I haven't, but would be open to trying it).  And while Malbec wines are my favorite, if you'd recommend another variety, I want to hear about it!

Ask me about any of the above and I'll grow animated and engaged.  But if you start with "Where are you from?" you'll get a flat, two-word answer.  And I'll return the question to be polite, but internally I'll be wishing I knew whether to ask you about:

  • traveling in Ireland, or
  • the secrets to baking a perfect loaf of bread, or
  • whether you too have ever wished you were a robot.

It's not that I don't care where you're from, but I have little reason to want to start the conversation there.  Sure, it'd be cool if we're from the same town, but would we bond over that in the long run?  Would we ever want to talk about that again?  Not likely.  But if we share a passion topic, we'll have a meaningful connection.

If effective delegation were easy, I would have mastered it by now.  But it's not.  And how to delegate as an introvert involves an extra layer of complication.  You see, delegation is communication in disguise.  And that means it requires energy.  And doing it well requires even more energy.  So no, I haven't mastered the art of delegation yet.  But here's why I'm trying.

The hardest part of delegation is communicating well enough for another person to succeed.  I know what the tasks are and who would be good at performing them, but I want to communicate to others the way I'd want to be communicated to.

Delegation at its Worst

I don't want to be the kind of leader who communicates random tasks.  When done poorly, delegation looks like this:

"We need pastries on Thursday."

Umm...  I don't know what quantity to get, by when on Thursday, or whether the kind of pasty matters.  Even worse, I don't know why the task itself matters.  Is the boss planning on being hungry?  Are the pastries on sale on Thursday?  Are we having an event?  I'd likely grumble all the way to the bakery and back.

Effective Delegation

Effective delegation does not give a person a random task, but rather a role to play.  It gives the person enough information to be successful, without crossing into the realm of micromanagement.

Let's try again with the pastries.  I'd be much more happy to take care of them if I were told:

"On Thursday we have 4 prospective customers visiting the office at 10am.  I'd like them to feel welcome, so please make sure there are fresh pastries available in the conference room when they arrive.  One of the visitors has a nut allergy."

Ah!  Much better.  Now I get what we're doing, and I'm eager to help out.  I know how many people will be present, so I can estimate the quantities.  I know we're aiming for a welcoming environment, so I might take it upon myself to arrange the items nicely and tidy the surrounding area.  Thankfully the crucial nut allergy was mentioned to save us the embarrassment of having too few options.  In short, the second wording gives me something to be a part of.

How to Delegate

So what was the key difference between the two examples?  The communication style.  If I'm going to delegate something, I need to:

  • give a context for what we're doing.  I'm more invested when I know why something matters and whom it will impact.
  • state the logistics, including when the item is due and in what format.
  • describe the expected outcome.  I'm not going to tell someone how to do the task, but I want my team member to understand what the end goal looks like.
  • share any known resources.  There's no reason to make someone do something the hard way if I have a tool or information that will make the task easier or the outcome more successful.  This also minimizes errors and duplication going forward.
  • indicate the priority.  Unless the person is on stand-by, she will need to know how this item compares in priority to current work.

That's a lot of steps!  While none of these steps is particularly difficult, the effort required to communicate the task greatly increased.

How to Delegate as an Introvert

So how does delegation differ for introverts?  As an introvert I am constantly aware of the energy cost of different activities.  The mistake I've made countless times is to only measure the energy cost of doing the item against the energy cost of delegating the item.  I tend to skip the long-term calculation.

It's tempting to keep a lot of tasks for myself because the energy required to delegate effectively feels high.  But this is a flawed calculation because if I never delegate, the item will belong to me next time, the time after that, and so on.  Failure to delegate requires my energy each time the item arises.  So instead I should calculate how much energy will be saved in the future by equipping others to run with ball.

I want to give my team members space to grow.  That can't happen if I keep all the tasks for myself.

I had been dreading a difficult conversation with a team member.  I needed to communicate that something wouldn't be going the way he wanted it to and why.  In typical fashion for when I'm delivering "bad" news, I ran through my thoughts dozens of times in my head.  I wanted to get the tone right.  I wanted the person to know that he is valued and that the choice to go a different way didn't reflect a lack of appreciation for his perspective.  I wanted him to know that the decision wasn't necessarily permanent in the long run.  I wanted him to know that I knew he would likely be frustrated.  And I wanted the message to be one human to another.

I feared that if we met in person, I would get part of the message out and then botch the rest.  Or I'd focus too much on the details and forget the human side.  Or I'd come across as compassionate but not firm in the decision to go another way.

The more I thought about it, the more I leaned towards sending an email first before the in-person meeting.  An email would allow me to get the wording and the tone right.  I would have time to form the message, and the recipient would have time to process the news before we talked.

I crafted and sent an email.  Later we met in person and had a productive and honest discussion.

Normally I rant about email and how it's annoying and a time sink, but on this occasion, it allowed me to be more human.

Even though I felt betrayed by my own body language, I had to laugh.  My coworker and I had an awkward exchange that was a textbook-perfect example of how personality type affects communication.  Although I didn't ask her afterwards, I'm willing to bet we saw the same situation very differently.  I’ll share the same story twice to decode my introvert body language.

The Extrovert’s Version of the Story

I stopped my coworker in the hallway to ask how she wanted our team to celebrate her upcoming birthday.  She always arranges a birthday lunch for each of us, so I wanted to do the same in return.  Her response was kind of weird though.  She tried to deflect the question and writhed sideways as if physically uncomfortable.  I just wanted to do something nice, so I’m not sure why she responded so strangely.

The Introvert’s Version of the Story

An outgoing coworker stopped me in the hallway and asked me an unexpected personal question.  It was a perfectly reasonable question, not too intrusive, and came from a place of genuine caring.  But I wasn't ready for it.  As I thought about my answer, I unconsciously turned to the side almost as if to protect myself.  I realized this a few moments later and turned back, hoping I didn’t seem disinterested or rude.  The combination of the unexpected attention, answering a personal question, and our close proximity made me feel vulnerable even though my coworker radiated nothing but warmth. 

I often wonder what percentage of my energy each day gets spent on communication, both sending and receiving.  On days where I feel exhausted from communication, I wish I were a robot.  I picture a robot rolling around, performing my daily responsibilities, and approaching every moment of communication without the fear, second guessing, or energy loss that I experience.

Need to deliver bad news?  The robot would send a short, accurate message without worrying about how the recipient will take it and whether the message has been delivered with enough care.

Need to write an email about a debated subject?  The robot would state the pros and cons of each option without worrying about how the list will come across and what will be the outcome.

Just received bad news?  The robot would process the impact of the news without worrying about what it should have done differently or how to deal with the aftermath.

If being a robot didn’t also mean losing the best parts of being human, I think I would go for it!

I once had a team member who was struggling in a particular area, so I was on the lookout for a small-scale success where I could compliment him on a job well done.  I hoped that catching him “doing something right” would build a foundation for future success.    

One day during a team meeting, he surprised and impressed me with some relevant and pointed questions.  It was exactly the type of active engagement and critical thinking I value in my team members.  A small-scale success had presented itself.

After the meeting, I knew I wanted to say something to my team member to thank him for the discussion points he’d brought up.  And then, I’m embarrassed to say, my mind took over and talked me into circles about whether this was a good idea.  I started wondering whether praising good behavior was too much like praising a pet.  And whether encouraging a particular behavior was being too manipulative.  And whether an “attaboy” would even be received well. 

I completely failed.  I wanted to communicate appreciation in the workplace, but I overthought the situation way too much and let too much time pass.  I let the fear of not communicating right prevent me from communicating at all.  I tried to make it perfect and as a result did nothing.  

In retrospect, I could have said something as simple as, “Thanks for the questions you brought up in the meeting.  I think that led to a fruitful discussion.”  My message didn’t have to be grandiose.  A simple, sincere ‘thank you’ is better than a never-delivered one.