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Late to the Introvert Party

I resist popular things. Apparently there’s a name for this: reactance, and it relates to not enjoying being told what to do. I didn’t see The Sixth Sense until 2008, and then I proceeded to tell everyone I knew who’d raved about when it was released in 1999: “I get it now! Bruce Willis was dead the whole time!” This really annoys people; psychologists should probably come up with a term for that too..

More recently, while at’s Consultant Partner Summit with my colleagues, I mentioned that after seeing Susan Cain speak about introverts at WorkHuman, I had finally given in, and picked up her book, ‘Quiet’. It was like yelling ‘fire’ in a room full of pyromaniacs. Jodi, Lou, and Lora all raved about the insights they’d taken from the book (about themselves and others), and my boss Chris (who’s a textbook extrovert) called it a “game changer”. So I stopped reading it immediately.

Just kidding! I have to finish it so that I can annoy people who told me to read it when it came out!

Now, I tend to be pretty wary about categorizing people’s personalities, in part because there are major validity and reliability concerns with popular assessment tools like MBTI, and because too often their use in teams and organizations is haphazard and half-ass. Team not getting along? “Let’s ignore leadership, role clarity, misaligned incentive structures, or dysfunctional org context and find out who’s a high D!”

Likewise, adhering too strenuously to the categories these tools neatly divide us into can be limiting. As Brian Little writes in ‘Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being‘:

“These ways of construing yourself may well be justified and may give you a frame of reference fot understanding yourself, but the frame may also limit your capacity for adaptive movement and change when life’s situations require it.”

Yet the research supports the existence of an introvert/extrovert spectrum, and as Cain’s  book explains, the way that our society and organizations value extroverts has ramifications, both individual and collective. Our approaches to meetings, teamwork, and even office space can all make it harder for introverts to contribute effectively and thrive at work.

As someone who identifies as an introvert myself, I am drawn to the idea that people like me might not be best served by today’s typical open concept office, with boardrooms for brainstorming, and managers inviting me to meetings without giving me advance notice of what they want to speak about.

However, I wonder whether the surge in interest about introverts might not be reinforcing the notion that there are two clear categories we each fall into, potentially locking ourselves and others into limiting constructs. Cain speaks briefly (meaning once, on page 14) about ‘ambiverts’, those people that fall somewhere in the middle of the introvert/extrovert ends of the spectrum, and there aren’t firm numbers to conclude how many people fall into this category, but some estimates range from 38-68%. That’s substantial.

I’m enjoying ‘Quiet’. It’s led to a number of a-ha moments about childhood struggles as a painfully shy kid who kept having to make new friends every few years when we moved. And yet, I am of two minds about how this might help us best support introverts as well as extroverts in the workplaces, without resorting to labels and potentially constrictive constructs of an individual’s preferences and strengths.

After all, despite clearly falling towards the ‘introvert’ end of the spectrum, all that moving around, plus eight years of waitressing, and a career in HR have taught me how to act more like an extrovert when the situation calls for it (and it often does). People can adapt, and ignoring this in organizations is both patronizing and foolish.

As well, the introvert/extrovert spectrum doesn’t capture the full range of dimensions along which humans differ. While it might not help us gain a clear sense of how we can design an optimal work environment, it’s correct to observe that people are complicated, and everyone is different. I tend to think that focusing too much on any one tool or construct may limit our ability to see that and adapt accordingly.

Do you think better understanding introverts and extroverts helps you navigate professional and personal relationships? Should we strive to make the workplace more welcoming to introverts? Let me know in the comments!


Read This Week:

Uber Board Member Resigns After Making Sexist Joke at Company Meeting About Sexism – Vanity Fair: At this point it feels like Uber is trying to out-Dunder Mifflin themselves, and it just keeps getting worse. After the many choruses of “they just need stronger HR”, new Uber HR chief Liane Hornsey decided to pull an Andy Kaufman and asked everyone to hug it out. For a follow-up act, board member David Bonderman  seemed to forgot that one of the only times that old white dudes can definitely not get away with sexism is when you’re on an all-staff call about sexism. I was going to write more about this, but it makes me want to flip tables. zenbreathingzenbreathingzenbr

Meet ADP’s ‘business anthropologist,’ putting human thought behind chatbots – ComputerWorld  This is a fascinating interview with Martha Bird!

“…understanding a user’s journey must also account for the cultural landscapes – organizational, culture, national culture, geography, tech infrastructure, gender – on which these journeys are mapped. One of my main areas of focus right now is designing technologies that work for people, such as conversational user interfaces and chatbots, and how to build these tools so that people can get in and get what they need…For instance, a German and a Brazilian might not have the same sense of urgency around time and scheduling. We call these “cultural precisions,” which need to be accounted for as we build out our systems.”

It’s Not Just You – Everyone Feels Like a Fraud at Work – Gameplan podcast: I really like this podcast from Bloomberg, and this episode on imposter syndrome is excellent. Every time I read (or hear) about the prevalence of imposter syndrome I think about Keegan and Lahey’s concept of Deliberately Developmental Organizations, in which work is “practice, not performance”.






3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oh no, The Sixth Sense was a film I was planning to get round to! You should have put a spoiler warning on your post!
    (Joke, like you I saw it after the hype, in about 2002/3)

    June 19, 2017
  2. I enjoyed the Introvert Party section, very enlightening!

    June 19, 2017
  3. This may come as a surprise, but I too tend to shy away from things people tell me to watch/read; however, Quiet is the next book on the pile to read. Based on your take – I am looking forward to it.

    June 30, 2017

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