Assistant Editor , SHP

August 3, 2023

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A quiet style of leadership – Being an introvert in HS

In a new series for SHP, we speak to professionals working in or around health and safety to start conversations that go beyond the day job, sharing individuals’ challenges and ideas for the profession.

In this article, SHP’s Rhianna Sexton speaks to Karen J. Hewitt, Founder of Leaderlike – which aims to help organisations build employee engagement through health, safety and wellbeing – about her career, being an introvert, and qualities introverted leaders can bring to health and safety.

SHP: Hi Karen, could you tell me about yourself, how did you get into health and safety?

Leaderlike- Karen J Hewitt-23

Karen J. Hewitt

Karen J. Hewitt (KJH): I got into it by accident, like a lot of people! My background was in marketing and communications, I had a marketing agency. But when I hit 40, I wanted to use my languages more as I speak a few languages – French, German, Spanish and Portuguese.

I decided to be an interpreter, so I spent a year doing a masters in simultaneous interpreting and eventually, after a lot of hard work, I managed to pass the coveted accreditation test to be a United Nations (UN) interpreter, and my first missions were in Vienna. Whilst I was pursuing this dream, I got a call from a former colleague who recommended me for a role at a big company in the oil and gas industry. They were looking for someone who could facilitate and deliver safety leadership sessions and speak multiple languages.

I successfully juggled the two jobs part time for a while. I loved the safety leadership side of it that I found myself in and I found I could use my languages with more psychological safety than as an interpreter, because the pressure was less. And the international audience loved it because it helped communication across the group.

I brought my ability to work a room and my languages to the role, but learnt everything else on the job. I asked questions and got so much good information because the people in the room knew the job, so I was learning so much at the same time – particularly about health and safety

I trained myself in coaching, learning styles and people skills, and now I’ve finally found the time catch up a bit on my technical skills with my NEBOSH diploma. I just have my final assignment to complete now. I’ve been so immersed in the ‘people’ side of it over the last decade, and I understand how corporate health and safety departments work and the challenges they face.
I see health and safety on a spectrum between compliance and ownership, the systems are there but what drives them, improves them and makes them more accessible and more digestible, is the people.

If you can engage people and get them motivated and interested in health and safety then they will take care of the systems, work out what we need to have, why we need to have it and simplify it.

They work in a virtuous circle – you need both to reinforce each other.

SHP: What is your definition of an introvert?

KJH: My definition has two elements – how you behave in social situations and how you feel when you’re not in your comfort zone in social situations.

For me, an introvert will often be introspective and thoughtful, they don’t often speak straight away, they tend to sit back and observe, sometimes they don’t even speak at all in meetings because they haven’t got something they feel is interesting to say.

I prefer smaller group settings, a one-to-one maybe, so I can connect with people on a deeper level. It’s ironic because I do a lot of work with groups where I’m front and centre, but I feel I can connect with people better in a one-to-one conversation.

Over time, I have learnt that I needed to find more extrovert tendencies and qualities to be successful in the workplace – it’s exhausting, you feel like you have to put sunglasses on and sit in a quiet room at the end of a tough day, whereas if you’re extrovert then you might prefer to go and sit with more people and decompress that way.

SHP: When did you realise you were an introvert and how did it affect you?

KJH: I got a lot of ‘interesting’ feedback on my personality when I was younger which I can look back on now and laugh at, although I didn’t understand it at the time

When I was 23, for example, I went for a job interview and was in a group problem solving exercise with other candidates – you know, where you’ve all got a problem to solve, and people sit round the outside and watch you. I wanted to sit back and get involved when I felt comfortable doing so, but I had all these people watching me and judging me and my leadership skills – so you become a bit fake because you think you haven’t said enough and then force yourself to speak when you don’t necessarily want to

I got feedback afterwards from the recruiter which didn’t exactly say these exact words, but what I heard was ‘you don’t have enough of a personality for this job’. So, technically I was good, but I knew something needed to change, I needed to learn to be more extroverted.

I threw myself into lots of different opportunities to be out of my comfort zone, and I remember I used to flush bright red and not be able to speak. It was very embarrassing.

SHP: How did you find your confidence? Did you get support from your workplace?

Communication meetingKJH: I delivered a conference paper in Copenhagen when I was about 28 and I look back and wonder how I did it.

What I learnt is to try to be a different version of myself in my 20s and 30s – but since then I’ve done a lot of personal development work, work on leadership and learnt a lot more about people. I’ve had my own ‘Aha moment’ realising that I didn’t have to be a ‘different’ version of myself, I just had to be a ‘bigger’ version of myself.

Just turning up the volume and being someone bigger than I was. It’s a bit like going on stage for a performance – you can be yourself but you need to be that little bit bigger so that the audience can see you.

In school reports they said I was painfully shy and must speak out more in class, these things stick with you, but as I grew older, I learnt more about people and realised that it was just who I am and I can adapt and act differently in different contexts – but also being careful from a wellbeing perspective because it’s exhausting.

As an introvert you love analysing things, reflecting on things and I have a lot of opportunity to reflect on conversations I’ve had and what I’ve learnt from them.

I realised that I wanted to be successful and wanted to learn, but if I didn’t learn how to stretch my style and be an extrovert when it was required then I was going to be overlooked and miss opportunities.

I have a lot of knowledge now about people, thinking styles, communication preferences and how people are different, so I see it every day in the work that I do. As a facilitator, if I see people that wait to speak or are looking for a moment to speak then I can bring them in, but not everybody has that awareness so others can be overlooked.

As much as we want to be inclusive, if the person in charge of the room doesn’t appreciate the differences in people’s personalities and styles then you’re not going to be included.

Even now there are occasions when I am in danger of being overlooked in a meeting.

SHP: Should employers be looking for introvert tendencies in their staff?

KJH: It’s just a case of noticing – there’s a lot of layers to people and so many bases on which people can be different, different reasons why they may not be comfortable in a setting, might want a different way of communicating – you can never know them all.

Introvert versus extrovert is only the tip of the iceberg, and of course, these are only extremes of the spectrum, with so many different combinations in between. If people look confused or look like they’re not getting it, I’ll ask a question or make a note of it so I don’t make them feel uncomfortable and then ask them in the break what I can do to help them join in. It’s just noticing, but once you start looking for differences, you find them and adapt to them.

There’s also a whole cultural element – if I went to a site in the Middle East, for example, or Africa or India, there would be a whole different set of cultural rules to the ones I was brought up with, around how people want to get involved in a group setting, so it’s not only the layers of introvert vs extrovert and all the other people differences, it’s the socio-cultural layers as well we have to think about as a leader.

For me, empathy is the starting point for any conversation.

When most people start a conversation they start from where they’re coming from (it’s a natural human tendency) but if you think in advance about how the other person is going to be feeling before they come into the meeting or conversation, you then start imagining what their biggest challenge of the day is, what are they thinking about, what’s driving them and happening in their day and you can start the conversation about them and with that new level of understanding. It’s just a small mindset switch which makes a huge difference.

SHP: What advantages do you feel introvert tendencies brings to health and safety?

KJH: As an introvert you tend to sit back, observe and think before you speak, so you create that time and space for yourself. If you understand that empathy is important then you’re in a better place to do it because you don’t drive straight in.

Also, as an introvert you’re sometimes uncomfortable in social situations, so you could potentially empathise with other people who may be uncomfortable as well, albeit for a different reason.

Being a leader or a coach is really about empathy and asking the right questions – you don’t have to worry too much about what you’re going to say because you let the other person do the talking, you just have to know the right questions to ask.

It’s a much more quiet style of leadership, a term I first became aware of through Susan Cain and her great book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – we used to think leadership was being all out there, jazz hands, doing all the talking, whereas quiet leadership is more about sitting back, letting others talk and leading the room.

So, being an introvert, you can find your lane when you’ve learnt the skills to allow other people to shine and let them be their best selves.

SHP: How important is it for health and safety professionals to be leaders in their organisations?

KJH: There’s a wider spectrum of leadership and communication styles required these days to make health and safety a success. On the one hand, there is a time to lead health and safety by going out and giving guidance and advice and saying this is how you do things.

On the other hand, there is also a time to go out and create the space to understand people’s challenges first, with questions like – what’s your vision for this work? If you could achieve one thing today what would it be? Then you get a lot more information on how you can influence someone for the better, and build the relationship at the same time.

This second approach takes more time, but great things come out of it. It’s also an approach that plays into an introvert’s strengths.

As a human we want to be valued and understood”

There’s a big link with mental health too – as a human we want to be valued and understood, so just going in and asking questions about how they see things, you’re asking their opinion and showing that you understand the challenges they’re under

The Health and Safety Executive stress management standards have highlighted six potential triggers for stress – they include excessive workload, not feeling in control or having enough control of what you’re doing, lack of role clarity and how change is managed- so when you go in and ask these questions, you get a feel for these triggers as well as a feel for what needs to change.

You’re also creating space for people to feel heard and for a lot of people, that’s all they need to be able to solve their own problems. This style of leadership is good for their wellbeing and your own wellbeing too, because by having these conversations, you don’t have to struggle to get people to comply, it’ll just happen. You are more in flow and life gets easier.

I find I’ve learnt to balance introvert with extrovert, I can both lead from the front and lead from the back.

Whoever reads this, if they’re an introvert they may think ‘yes, I totally get this, this makes perfect sense to me and think it’s great’ – but equally if you’re an extrovert and you’re not instantly relating to it, then it validates that style as well because you need to be out there giving people the vision in full extrovert style but at the same time, understanding the introvert perspective and embracing that as well.

So, the key message is, even though I naturally and happily identify as an introvert, being a good leader means seamlessly moving from introvert to extrovert as the need arises and the situation requires. And I firmly believe that we all have both introvert and extrovert within us.

Karen also recently spoke on TEDx Talks about keeping safe by asking yourself two important questions – have a watch here: 

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David Percival
David Percival
11 months ago

Really interesting article. I can relate to this totally. I have had to over the years force myself into uncomfortable situations to slowly desensitise myself to speaking in large groups or rooms full of important people. I still see the ‘fake’ extroverts who say things for saying things sake. If I have learnt anything over the years, its don’t be afraid to get up there and talk, the more you do it the easier it gets and also be comfortable in the silence, if people want your opinion they can always ask.

11 months ago

A very interesting article.

9 months ago

I absolutely loved this article. It all resonated with me, as I am an introvert and as a leader of a team, have found myself needing to be more extroverted. It has been uncomfortable and messy at times, but equally it has helped me become a better leader. I have found it to be exhausting because it seems like the extroverts are more welcomed, have more opportunities afforded to them, and the contributions of the introverts are not recognized. Within my team, I continuously trying to ensure the introverts also get to put their voice in the room. It always… Read more »