Our world favours extroverts, says author Susan Cain. Cain suggests we are conditioned from a young age to see introvert characteristics such as a quietness as flawed or somehow inferior to extrovert characteristics like sociability. Cain goes as far as to say that schools and workplaces are designed for extroverts and that this bias creates a ‘waste of talent, energy and happiness’.
Interesting, but is it true? Are we underutilising and underappreciating our introvert colleagues, who probably make up around a third to one half of the population, or is introversion just misunderstood?
USA Today reported that four in 10 top executives are introverts, suggesting that the one trait that linked highly successful executives was creativity, something that introverts are supposed to excel at. Academic Helgoe suggests that most creative activities are also solitary like planning, thinking, researching, reading, theorising and writing.
And it’s not just executives that are said to be introverts. The president of Wisnik Career Enterprises in NYC, Eva Wisnik suggests that 60% of lawyers are introverts- as determined by the Myers-Briggs personality test.
Yet the perception that extroverts make better leaders persists in society, with USA Today also reporting (what they admit as being an unscientific online survey) that only 6% of senior level managers think introverts make better CEOs.
Unscientific perhaps, but what we do have here is a measure of general perceptions, and the general perception is introvert equals inferior.
One of the main issues that introverts can face is a lack of understanding about what introversion is.
Many use the terms shy and introverted interchangeably, but they are not necessarily the same thing. Authors like Cain describe introversion as a response to stimulation such as a meeting or a large group of people together at once.
The extrovert would thrive with this stimulation, feeding off the energy of the situation whilst the introvert can be drained by the stimulation and often only reenergise in solitude.
Considered from this perspective, we can see that introverts can cope very well in sociable environments, even if they are depleted by them.
It also enables us to understand how we might sometimes assume that anyone that is able to function well in the areas we may see as being particularly suited to the extrovert leader- like networking, making presentations, sharing ideas and motivating a team- as being an extrovert.
Then there are ambiverts.
Kimball Young introduced the term ambivert back in 1927, a sort of hybrid of the introvert and extrovert psychological types that 20th century Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung is famous for, although Jung himself said that none of us are completely introverted or extroverted.
The ambivert could function well in group settings and receive energy from it, but not crave it in the way that an extrovert would, functioning equally well and being as energised by solitude or their internal processes.
As well as challenging our perceptions and misconceptions about introverts, and indeed about extroverts too, it is useful to become more aware of and accepting of the different ways that people excel in the workplace.
Introverts with their tendency for self-reflection and careful consideration can work better when they are given time to prepare and fully appreciate and understand an issue before being asked to comment upon it.
This can, at times, make introverts appear less engaged, less knowledgeable or less forthright than the extrovert leader when in actuality they just need to be more prepared. Given their propensity to listen before speaking, and desire to consider options before deciding on a course of action, introverts can make great leaders as well as conscientious employees.
Often, it’s about them finding the way of working that suits them best.
So, are we underappreciating and misunderstanding introverts?
We have seen that you can easily embody both introvert and extrovert traits. It is also absolutely possible for a self-professed introvert to be seen as extremely extrovert because they are, for a short time or even during working hours, exhibiting extrovert characteristics.
When a person feels comfortable and supported in their working environment they will naturally be more confident. What is also true though is that introversion can be maligned.
We need to move beyond ingrained perceptions of what an introvert is, and also allow employees to embrace their introvert qualities to increase creativity and yes, to ensure that we are not wasting talent, energy and happiness.