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How to understand introverts (part three: in the workplace)

Let’s conclude this short series on introversion and extroversion with how it all plays out in the workplace.

If you’ve been following the series (this is the third part; part one is here, and part two here ), you’ve understood the essentials about introversion vs extroversion. Here’s a beautifully concise summary, from Concordia University’s Dr Laura Mitchell: Introverts think to talk; go deep; energize alone; are inner-directed; need concentration; focus on thoughts and ideas; prefer one-on-ones.

Extroverts, on the other hand, talk to think; go wide; energize with others; are outer-directed; need diversions; focus on people and events; and prefer group discussions.

From that list you’ll discern an essential truth: a great organization needs both types of personalities to be truly effective.

But that’s not how the world is structured. In her seminal work, Quiet, Susan Cain railed against the ‘extrovert ideal’: that the world (particularly the western world) has built up an archetype of leadership that extols charisma, overt confidence and dominance. Studies show that introversion is therefore viewed as a barrier to leadership; and that extroverts are more likely to be recruited for top jobs. The usual promotion channels present major obstacles for introverts.

This is an unfortunate bias. Introverts bring a great deal to the workplace at all levels; and top leadership is no exception. We have plenty of examples of extroverted leaders in history, but how do you want to explain Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama and Eleanor Roosevelt in politics; or Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Larry Page, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg in business? Introverts all.

What do introverts bring to top jobs? Active listening, acute observation, and deep reflection. Why would you not value that? Indeed, Adam Grant and others ran a study in 2010 that found ‘soft-spoken’ leaders are actually better at running pro-active teams, for example – perhaps because they listen more and synthesize better, and overrule and override less.

The real lesson is this: a great leader knows how to build mixed teams, and deploy individuals differently. The best teams I have observed or helped to build contain a healthy mix of personality types. The leader’s job is to create the conditions in which diverse teams can thrive. And this means good conditions for all types of team members, not just extroverts.

In the case of introverts, do the following: give them time and space to think, and information in advance. Don’t put them on the spot. If you’re going to appreciate them in public, give them some notice, so that they can gather themselves (and their words!). Don’t expect them to start conversations – but do reel them in to end them once they’ve had a chance to think. Offer them quiet spaces at work. And at conferences and jamborees, accept that they will need their me-time away from the group.

For extroverts: let them talk it out loud – understand that they process as they go. Give them built-in social time and don’t think of it as slacking – remember that they get their energy from interactions. Give them enough face-time time with you, the leader – they thrive on it. And do give them public accolades when they’ve done well.

A final lesson: we all need to adjust ourselves. If you’re an introvert, you will probably need to put yourself out there more and show more presence, particularly if you’re assuming leadership. If you need more time, take it – but do follow through and make your point. Learn the simple techniques of public speaking – don’t shy away from it. Attend important events – but manage yourself. Mingle a little, then slip away. Don’t be lost for words – prepare some!

As for extroverts: learn to dial it down, learn to listen, learn not to interrupt.

In conclusion: these are archetypes; don’t turn them into stereotypes. Just being introverted does not mean you are deep or thoughtful; just being extroverted does not make you good at managing people. Human personality is complex and multifaceted. Learn to look for nuance in people; don’t just put them in labelled boxes. That way you will get the best out of them – and yourself.

Diversity is a cause for celebration, not concern. I rejoice in the multiplicity of personalities my work places before me. I treat every difference in the world of people with great respect, and try to see the good in it before I worry about the bad. What matters at the end of the day is not our extroversion or introversion – but what we do with it, in service of a bigger deal.

(Sunday Nation, 29 April 2018)

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