Long reads

The power of introverts

25 Jan 2017 By Victor Smart

“People like me don’t normally speak up"– are workplace introverts the last group it’s OK to overlook?

A few years ago, a hushed revolution took root across the world’s social media users – though given its nature, you’d be forgiven for not having heard of it. The release of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by attorney turned author Susan Cain struck a chord with its articulate and persuasive advocacy of a largely forgotten section of society.

Cain’s TED talk on introverts has notched up 15 million views. And since she opened the door to the topic, introverts have been a subject of both discussion and fascination among sociologists and cultural commentators.

It’s been music to the ears of Caroline Beardall, director of organisational effectiveness at government regulator NHS Improvement, as well as a Royal Society of Medicine fellow and professional coach. She identifies herself as a proud introvert and, like others who found Cain’s work inspiring, has been both heartened by the recognition and disappointed it hasn’t led to greater progress in the workplace.

“People at work see me as a people person,” says Beardall. “But I do need a bit of restoration time and maybe some quiet solitude after a hard day. So as well as working up a wellbeing strategy for the company, I have my own wellbeing plan ensuring I have sufficient time to reflect and reset. That way I can give my best whenever I engage with others.

“It’s time we got rid of the idea that it’s somehow a drawback to be an introvert – or that they are low-energy or lack resilience. Introverts make sometimes unseen contributions to organisations. They reflect on what they do, whereas some other people can be on ‘transmit’.”

What’s perhaps most surprising about introverts is that they are no tiny minority. Estimates have put the proportion of the workforce with introverted tendencies at between one third and one half, which begs the question: why, with all the talk of neurodiverse workforces that take account of different ways of thinking and are mindful of every deviation from the neurological norm, do introverts so rarely get a mention?

Introversion and extroversion are terms popularised by Carl Jung and used across all important personality models, including Myers-Briggs and later variants based on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits. Each individual, according to these models, is on a continuum: no one is a pure introvert or extrovert. Indeed, strictly, these are not types of personalities but dimensions of personality (something soon forgotten once we label someone an introvert).

Both introverts and extroverts (and those at all points in between) have different qualities and bring something important to the workplace, of course. But how do we understand what that looks like?

Testing for these traits relies on participants’ ‘introspective self-reporting’ – and many seem to find the categories recognisable. Extroverts tend to talk more and with more self-assurance, while introverts listen more and may appear tentative and less confident. The litmus test is that the extroverted recharge their energies by interacting with others, whereas the introverted need ‘downtime’ alone after socialising, reflecting on their own behaviour and that of others.

Despite assurances of parity of esteem between extroverts and introverts, in the workplace introvert qualities such as listening, reflection and critical thinking are often undervalued, and the label ‘introvert’ can still be embarrassing or even shameful. As Cain puts it neatly, with people being taught from childhood that to be sociable is to be happy, introversion is now considered “somewhere between a disappointment and pathology”.

These issues are arguably getting worse. A report from OPP, part of the Myers-Briggs Group, says that “many of the trends in the modern office, while not always moving towards the preferences of extroverts, certainly seem to be moving away from the preferences of introverts”.

One reason is that, running alongside the new awareness of quiet people’s needs, there is a counter-narrative that stresses the imperative for constant communication, which has spawned open-plan offices, 24/7 connectivity, networking and other practices that can inspire dread in introvert minds. Not to mention that team-building exercises, away days, role plays and around-the-clock messaging can be a nightmare for the reflective introvert, while the creativity of individuals working alone is disparaged.

Meanwhile, we are drawn to charismatic or simply loud-mouthed individuals who cannot be ignored. Donald Trump may be far from everyone’s cup of tea, but just short of 63 million Americans voted for him. We seem hard-wired to associate leadership with extrovert traits – little wonder it has been reported that 96 per cent of business leaders identify as extroverts.

“It may be down to our inherited prehistoric interpretation of machoism equating to the tribe leader, but a shout-loud-and-take-charge mentality still prevails,” says Nick Jackets, an introverted senior retail manager specialising in discipline, grievance and mediation.

His view is backed by academic Barbara Kellerman, whose book Bad Leadership explains that hierarchy and patterns of dominance are the natural order of things among primates. “Even bad leaders often satisfy our most basic human needs, in particular safety, simplicity and certainty,” she says.

Trump embodies the idea that, at times of uncertainty, people often hunger for a strongman who says he has all the answers. But businesses that overlook introverts in the quest for charisma are certainly missing out. Individual introverts view themselves as focused, capable and able to work without distraction. “They are efficiency machines,” says Jackets, who feels extroverts are often sidetracked by “laughing, shouting and point-scoring”.

“I would say that the art of listening far outweighs the art of speaking,” adds Jackets. “Those who proactively listen, then reflect, then speak, hold the upper hand. Talk is cheap in business, but listening is gold.” And introverts can be a much-needed calming presence in the workplace: the conflict-averse listener may be rather good at resolving disputes.

Leadership coach Lesley Taylor, author of The Dynamic Introvert, cites research that introverted leaders can be more effective in situations of rapid change. Leadership, she insists, is “less about charisma and more about developing relationships and bringing out the best in people”. In eastern cultures, where deference to authority and age remains intact, the cult of extroversion is less pervasive. Cain quotes research that shows “Asia… is introverted, Europe is extroverted” with “Americans some of the most extroverted people on earth”.

But the organisational blight on introverts’ careers means overlooked talent, poor group dynamics and reduced problem-solving abilities. For individuals, it leads to frustration and stress. Many ambitious introverts spend their working hours pretending to be outgoing, a habit that becomes exhausting.

Some, of course, are good at it: cultural figures as diverse as Bill Gates, Christina Aguilera, Emma Watson and Mark Zuckerberg (whose hatred of public speaking has become notorious) have declared themselves introverts but have been able to adapt to the disciplines of their industries, or at least created organisations in their own image.

Non-celebrity introverts have no such luxury and are often painfully aware of how their ingrained traits disadvantage them. For one, they can be slow at spontaneous conversation: opportunities to contribute are here and gone while they grapple for a response. Rebecca, an HR officer with experience across a number of sectors, says: “I struggle in a meeting when something new is presented and ideas are requested from us. It can take me longer to process things. Usually, I will end up sending an email or speaking with someone later to put my ideas across.”

Kat Hall, a CIPD student and former communications manager in a mental health charity, says: “Organisations and work are so focused around what extroverts can do and how they behave that it constantly feels like you have to be someone you’re not to fit in. I need quiet time to concentrate. I feel myself getting tense and grumpy if I’m interrupted. I put my headphones on as a signal that I’m trying to focus. But that might be misinterpreted as anti-social.”

HR, the bastion of group activities and collaboration (and, arguably, a function with a lower incidence of introversion than some) has a habit of making the problem worse by facilitating extrovert-focused activities. Self-identified introvert Stefan recounts how his boss, a born talker, hosted an away day at a hotel for the team, which she presented alongside a trainer. The day kicked off with everyone doing a personality test. Each group was then separated and had to wear a baseball cap designating their personality type; for the introverts this was either green for a caring ‘dove’, or blue for an analytical ‘owl’. “The extrovert groups were jubilant, behaving like a pack of hyenas,” he says. “They became more and more unruly and brash. Clearly, they had ‘won’. At the opposite end of the room, us introverts felt despondent.”

There are plenty who might respond that Stefan should develop more resilience. But fortunately, there are fixes businesses can sensitively put in place that recognise the problem and make a genuine difference to introverts without tearing up the organisational fabric.

First, introverts like time to process. So give them a 20-minute heads-up of something unexpected and don’t insist on instant decisions. Written communication is sometimes preferable: Amazon meetings now begin in silence and everyone who attends must read a memo on the topic before they speak.

Remember that introverts most readily engage in small groups of three or four or personal one-on-ones, not large meetings where the ‘usual suspects’ make their voices heard. Those chairing should ensure everyone has a chance to speak and that talking over colleagues is not acceptable. Organisers can also create opportunities for follow-up chats.

At away days, set aside time when extroverts can discuss things in groups while introverts sit and reflect. Don’t let extrovert leaders use such events as a chance to grandstand or force introverts to undertake exercises that segregate them. And when recruiting, avoid interviewing candidates in groups, something that will favour extroverts.

Perhaps, most of all, we should be aware – as we ask people to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work – that there is a group of individuals who are unlikely to give voice to their needs, thanks to the very nature of their selves. As Beardall says: “Individuals should not have to shoehorn their personalities into a mould others have set. Organisations need to acknowledge they should have broad policies in place so people are able to be true to themselves and their values. Otherwise they will miss out on what staff are truly capable of.”

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