Why Introverts Aren't Participating In Your Retrospectives

Published November 12, 2019 by David Horowitz

There are two types of people in this world: those who excitedly engage in small talk, and those who avoid it like the plague. Those who eagerly share their thoughts and opinions in a large group, and those who would, just, well… rather not. 

The introverts out there know the aforementioned feeling of keeping their big ideas to a small audience while the extroverts run the show. While this tactic works just fine in non-professional settings, it can be difficult for introverts to assert themselves in the workplace. 

The loudest and most talkative person in the room, or on your team, doesn’t always have the best ideas. As a retrospective facilitator, it’s your job to ensure that everyone on your team has an equal opportunity to share their two cents during meetings, especially during a retrospective. 

Ways To Prepare The Introverts On Your Team For An Engaging Retrospective

In order to facilitate retrospectives that cater to both the extroverts and introverts on your team, it’s crucial to learn what makes introverts, introverted. You also need to understand their common personality traits as well as which tactics help them come out of their shells.

Remember, just because your quieter team members don’t share their opinions in a group setting as often, that doesn’t mean they don’t have valuable and insightful feedback to provide. 

As Ron Edmonson, CEO of Leadership Network puts it, 

"Everyone on your team has thoughts you need to hear. If not, why are they on the team? Our challenge, as leaders, is to create an environment conducive for hearing from everyone."

The degree to which the introverts on your team participate in retrospectives is determined before the retrospective even begins. Set your quieter team members up for success by implementing a few of the simple strategies listed below in the days leading up to your retrospective.

1. Schedule Time Before The Retrospective For Individual Reflection And Brainstorming

Have you ever turned down the volume in the car in order to better concentrate while parallel parking into a tight spot? 

Think of this scenario as the mind of an introvert. When faced with too much stimuli (such as noise, people, or distractions), introverts become overwhelmed and find it harder to focus. Their best thinking tends to happen in non-stimulating environments, such as a quiet conference room, an empty coffee shop, or a peaceful home office.

In 2012, a study completed by Randy Buckner of Harvard University discovered that introverts tend to have larger, thicker grey matter in their prefrontal cortex — a region of the brain that is linked to abstract thought and decision making. Extroverts, on the other hand, have substantially less of this grey matter. 

Buckner concluded that this is likely accountable for introverts’ tendencies to quietly sit and ponder through their decisions before presenting an idea or taking action.

It’s for this reason that the ‘think fast, speak fast’ method in a noisy brainstorming session will send the introverts on your team mentally running for the hills.

Instead, schedule a pre-retrospective brainstorm to encourage each participant to take some time alone to reflect and brainstorm. Then they can come prepared with a list of valuable feedback and ideas the moment the actual retrospective begins. 

Arm your introverts with the necessary tools for a productive pre-retro brainstorm by supplying everyone on the team with the topic for the retro (if applicable), the format for it, and any data you plan to present to set the stage for the meeting.

2. Host The Retrospective During Peak Productive Times

Along with an individual brainstorm session, be sure to select a thoughtful time of day to run your retrospective. 

Introverts tend to be more energetic and clear-minded in the morning, before the chaos of their commute, dreaded small talk, and back-to-back meetings ensue. 

The Introvert Hangover is the feeling of social at the end of a day that’s packed with too much socialization and stimuli. Much like a real hangover, an introvert hangover has been reported to cause physical exhaustion, irritability, and the inability to think clearly. 

In other words, schedule your retrospectives for when everyone one your team will be the most engaged. As a manager, the last thing you need is for the introverted half of your team to be exhausted and disengaged by the time your 4 pm retrospective rolls around.

Click to Tweet Images 2 (5)

How To Host A Retrospective For Introverts

With the right strategies, the introverts on your team will gladly share their thoughts and opinions, but it’s up to you to facilitate your retrospective in such a way that supports this outcome.

Start Off On The Right Foot

As a manager, you want your team to participate in your retrospective meetings, but you also want them to participate honestly. 

Managers or scrum masters should start off any retrospective by establishing that all opinions are valued. It’s important to communicate right away to foster a space that is psychologically safe and collaborative. Psychological safety is important to everyone, not just introverts, and will be a deciding factor of whether or not participants feel encouraged to answer your questions honestly.

Pick The Right Facilitation Strategies

We’ve all been there. A meeting where the most outgoing person on the team dominates the conversation, while others nod along, fighting to get a word. Not only is this frustrating, it silently hurts the ingenuity of the meeting as people are naturally influenced by the loudest, most talkative person in the room. 

According to Jan Bruce, CEO of meQuilibrium, 

"In any given six-person meeting, two people are going to do more than 60 percent of the talking."

There are many practices that managers can implement to prevent this from happening, and they’re broken down into two easy-to-remember points — Non-verbal answering exercises and timed discussions.

1. Non-Verbal Answering Exercises

Introverts are thinkers, listeners, and observers. By asking your retro participants to answer in succinct, non-verbal ways, you can be sure to extract an introvert’s thoughts in a way that suits them. Examples of this include:

Open-ended answering exercises:

Instead of asking questions with a yes/no or agree/disagree answer system, use open-ended questions to allow for more detailed and contextual answers to important questions. 

To keep this exercise introvert-friendly, ask each participant to write their answers privately (known as private brainstorming) and only allow answers to be shown after each person is done. The purpose of private brainstorming is to minimize the unwanted influence of seeing what others think before having finished an answer. 

By not forcing each participant to talk out loud, and still allowing everyone to provide a useful answer, you cater to not only the talkers on the team but also the quieter ones. Keep this exercise anonymous to encourage participants to answer more honestly. 

A common retrospective facilitation is Mad, Sad, Glad, which asks team members to come up with their own answers on what made them frustrated, disappointed, and happy during the sprint. This is a great way to check the emotional pulse of your team.

Other questions to prompt insightful open-ended answers are:

  • What worked well and what didn’t?
  • Which aspects would you change for next time?
  • Describe our current process in five words
Voting: 

By asking your team to answer certain questions with anonymous votes (utilize private brainstorming here as well), you can ensure that all answers are of equal importance and weight. While voting may not give you the full context or details, you can at least discover commonalities, trends, and create a foundation for further discussion.

You can use voting to answer questions such as:

  • Overall, did this go well? 👍👎
    • Example answers: A. Yes, B. No, C. Mixed thoughts
  • Did you feel like you had the resources you needed for success? 🤔
    • Example answers: A. Not at all, B, Yes, but could have been better, C. I had all the resources I needed
  • After this sprint I mostly feel... 😊😓
    • Example answers: A. Frustrated, B. Accomplished, C. Disappointed, D. Ecstatic

Pro Tip: During your next retrospective, try the Lean Coffee technique to build an agenda, an exercise that uses voting to determine the priority level of different topics to discuss.

2. Timed Discussions

As the facilitator of a retrospective, you’re in the driver’s seat. Maintain speed and direction of your retrospective meeting by allocating a specific amount of time for each participant to speak on a topic. 

There are many ways to control the amount of time participants answer a question or speak on a topic. Set the stage by stating the decided length of time (usually 1-2 minutes) before the discussion, and use a timer that participants can also view to keep track. Politely remind team members when they’ve almost ran out of time, and only allow them to speak at length again until others have had a chance.

Pro Tip:Make eye contact with the introverts on your team when looking for someone to speak up. Many participants will feel more inclined to share their thoughts if the host looks to them to chime in.

Click to Tweet Images 2 (4)

Keep The Conversations Going — What To Do Following Your Retrospective

What you do following a retrospective is almost as important as what you do prior to starting.

Introverts usually prefer intimate conversations with just one or two other people, where they aren’t likely to be out-talked, so go above and beyond your normal duties as a facilitator by personally checking in on them following the retrospective.

Take your efforts one step further by sending out a follow-up email with the action items the team decided on, main takeaways, and be sure to highlight space for further opinions and thoughts. 

Remember that many introverts feel more comfortable writing rather than talking, so give them the opportunity to write out their thoughts once they’ve had some time to process them. Members of the team may cook up some great ideas or feedback after the retrospective so allowing them the time and space to think on their own could lead to the most insightful ideas and plans. 

Everyone on your team deserves a voice at the table. Follow these tactics during your next retrospective to encourage the introverts in the room to contribute their valuable opinions. Inclusion and follow-through should always be your top priorities as a leader. Because who knows what’s in your team’s mind? All you have to do is ask. 


Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published in February 2017 but has been updated with new information and resources.