…and how extroverts can benefit from synergy with introvert colleagues
A significant proportion of people in society are introverts, but society’s cultural norms seem to be based on extroversion as normal, while introversion is considered to be somehow weak and abnormal:
- much TV entertainment, especially that described as “reality”, is based on people who are willing to expose their private selves publicly and loudly;
- the amazing growth of social media is based on an extrovert paradigm that many introverts find difficult to come to terms with;
- the stereotype culture for a great business seems to require people to become passionate and full-on, whether as a leader or as a follower.
All of these things are more natural for the extrovert than the introvert. Technological advances and economic growth generated by business benefit from a quiet, thoughtful and analytical approach to thinking problems through. Yet the business environment is beset by management theories that advocate the explicit hyping up of extrovert emotionality as the key to success.
You would probably consider me to be a normal sort of guy, but I am definitely an introvert. I know this because the descriptors for introversion outlined later resonate strongly with me. Here are some personal experiences of the extrovert=good, introvert=bad paradigm that seems to be prevalent in society today:
- On a training course one of the participants was asked a question and went internally (as introverts do) to find the answer. An extrovert observer commented, in a disparaging manner, that “the lights are on but no-one is home”.
- I read a couple of Anthony Robbins’ books and found the content stimulating and interesting. I went to one of his seminars and was expected to jump up and down and whoop, a requirement I found uncomfortable and alienating.
- Many self-help books deal with introversion as an illness that needs to be cured – they attempt to teach introverts how to be extroverts.
While we are aware of this cultural bias (which is especially strong in the USA), we don’t have any clever theories about why this it has developed. Introverts are commonly thought to be in a minority but this depends on the definition chosen: the original Myers-Briggs definition seemed to applied to 25% of the population, but a 1998 survey from the same company estimated the proportion of introverts at 50.7% of the total.
Introversion and extroversion
Introversion and extroversion are neither good nor bad in themselves. They are different mechanisms for how people deal with the world, which work well in some circumstances and not so well in others. The core of the mechanism is that extroverts gain energy when they are engaging with other people and lose energy when they are by themselves. By contrast, introverts gain energy when they are by themselves and lose energy when they engage with a lot of other people (especially strangers).
The difference between introverts and extroverts is most obvious in how they conduct conversations. Before introverts talk, they need to go inside themselves to think first, so are prone to long pauses while they do so. Extroverts stimulate their thinking by the act of talking itself, so can maintain a monologue without stopping. Effectively:
- introverts need to think in order to be able to talk; while
- extroverts need to talk to in order to be able to think.
In a conversation between an extrovert and an introvert, the extrovert might consider the introvert to be mildly rude for being quiet and non-responsive for periods of time. Conversely the introvert might consider the extrovert to be mildly rude for hogging the conversation and allowing insufficient time to think things through. Neither are being rude at all: they are each using their own coping mechanisms.
Here are some other aspects of introversion and extroversion:
|Needs to speak in order to think||Needs to think in order to speak|
|Uses facial expressions and gestures when talking||Has emotions but tends to keep them hidden internally|
|Enjoys meeting strangers||Awkward when meeting strangers|
|Energy is boosted by large social situations (eg parties or networking events)||Energy is drained by large social situations (eg parties or networking events)|
|Weaker at technical subjects that benefit from quiet solitary thinking||Stronger at technical subjects that benefit from quiet solitary thinking|
|Stronger at personal selling||Weaker at personal selling|
|Good at acting - by being themselves||Good at acting - by being someone else|
|Good at live debates||Good at written analysis|
Although introverts are often portrayed as geeks culturally, we are not aware of any correlation with intelligence, or any other attributes like ethical stance or personal drive. However, there does seem to be some evidence that dopamine pathways (our neurological reward system) are more active in extroverts. These are not distinct either/or pigeon-holes: they operate in an analogous way to right-handedness and left-handedness, which exists on a continuum. There are plenty of people who write with their right hand while kicking a ball with their left foot or throw with their left hand (or vice versa). Similarly, introversion/extroversion is a bias rather than an absolute: it exists on a continuum from one extreme to the other with many people in the middle having a mix of different traits in different circumstances.
Coping as an extrovert
It may seem odd to suggest that extroverts need to cope in a world that we have already described as heavily extrovert in culture. But to get the best results in business, extroverts and introverts need to be able to work together so that each benefits from each others’ strengths.
The primary way for an extrovert to cope with introverts is simply to be aware of, and respect, the different mechanisms that are operating. This includes:
- Not treating apparent non-responsiveness as rudeness or disengagement.
- Deliberately leaving space in the conversation for the introvert to talk when they are ready, rather than feeling obliged to keep talking in order to avoid an awkward silence.
- Asking for confirmation and feedback rather than expecting it to flow automatically.
- At social events, take responsibility for breaking the ice but avoid pushing an introvert into a situation where they will feel exposed and uncomfortable.
- Don’t expect or demand explicit shows of emotion – seek other ways of establishing the degree of involvement and commitment in a project.
The key to all of the above is to offer some respect for the other person’s preferences. By itself this is likely to be reciprocated, generating a sense of support and loyalty.
Coping as an introvert
Once again, the primary way to cope is to be aware of, and respect, the different mechanisms that are operating. For an introvert this usually means having to resist the cultural stereotype rather than caving in to the pressure to attempt to behave in an extrovert way.
Some of the things that an introvert can do are:
- In a conversation, allow the extrovert to do most of the talking rather than feeling obliged to keep up. This is actually win-win, because both parties have the freedom to think about the issues at the same time.
- On meeting someone (even in passing), make eye contact and exchange pleasantries even if this sometimes feels like a pointless exercise.
- Rather than feeling threatened by a social event, develop a coping strategy. Here are a few ideas:
- latch on to a friendly extrovert who can do most of the required talking;
- screen the guest list in advance and target known people;
- if attendance is required, arrive late or leave early (or both);
- recharge batteries in the proverbial ‘dark room’ as soon as possible afterwards;
- decline to attend but send an extrovert as a substitute.
- If possible, leave traditional face-to-face selling to the extroverts. This doesn’t mean that introverts should avoid sales roles completely: they can be highly effective because of their ability to listen and tailor the product offering accurately to client needs. And, of course, many clients are introverts themselves so rapport will be easier to establish. Introverts can cope with an energy-draining sales situation once in a while, but find it difficult to cope with such a role full-time.
- In meetings, take care to communicate your position on a subject explicitly (and briefly) rather than expecting silence to be taken as consent.
Once again, the key is respect: it’s important to operate in a manner that suits our natural mechanisms, while taking care not to do things that might appear as a snub to others.
Crudely, in business terms:
- extroverts tend to have a natural affinity for business relationships and networking;
- introverts tend to have a natural affinity for business technicalities and systems.
The real prize for both extroverts and introverts comes when they are able to work together and combine their diverse strengths into creating a business with competence in all areas. Recognising, understanding and respecting the differences is the starting point.
Laughing about the differences is a great way for introverts and extroverts to get along. In the hugely successful TV sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”, Sheldon and Leonard are two introverted but extremely intelligent physics professors who live next door to Penny, an extrovert waitress/actress with lots of street-smarts. The show revolves around the clash of extrovert/introvert styles to comic effect, and in doing so acknowledges the existence of introversion and the benefits of collaboration between the two styles. The show is very funny (but still manages to comply with the cultural stereotype by treating introversion as an aberration).
The stereotypical CEO in our culture is a charismatic (extrovert) leader but as Jim Collins outlined in “Good to Great” the most successful CEOs over time have tended to be the more reflective, self-deprecating alternative. A business partnership between an introvert and an extrovert can be a dream team for success: an obvious example was the introverted Bill Gates and his CEO at Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, who was legendary for his feats of extreme extroversion.
By contrast, the development of a schism between the sales-driven, extrovert, part of a firm and its more introverted analytic functions is a common cause of disaster. The collapse of the securitised mortgages market was caused by the suppression of authentic analytic data, while many failures in the retail sector have been caused by poor engagement with the evolving emotional needs of customers.
Extroversion and introversion are different but equally healthy approaches to life. A good business will prosper from a combination of both.