An understanding of personality traits in the workplace can improve personal, team and organisational effectiveness – as well as supporting inclusion and wellbeing.
Consider the fruitful (sorry) partnership between Apple’s “two Steves”: Steve Jobs (“a dazzling showman”) and self-identified introvert Steve Wozniak who developed the first Apple computer. While Wozniak’s quiet genius led to the initial invention, it was extrovert Jobs who urged Wozniak to set up a company and became its charismatic figurehead. Might their different personalities lie at the heart of one of the most successful business collaborations of all time?
Virtually all comprehensive models of personality – Myers-Briggs included – measure ‘introversion’ and ‘extroversion’ in some form or other. The terms are widely known and used, but often misunderstood.
To describe introverts as “shy” and extroverts as “outgoing” is to conflate concepts that are similar but not the same. A more accurate differentiation would be to say that, while introverts focus inwards, into their inner world of thoughts, and tend to recharge by spending time alone, extroverts focus outwards and gain their energy from other people in the external world.
Not all introverts are shy. Shy people don’t necessarily want to be alone but are afraid to interact with others. There is such a thing as a shy extrovert – who has a need for external stimulation, but also a fear of negative evaluation and a tendency toward avoidance.
“It's how you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation,” explains Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.
“So, introverts prefer lower-stimulation environments, that's where they feel at their most alive. Whereas extroverts really crave stimulation in order to feel at their best. It's important to see it this way because people often equate introversion with being antisocial, and it's not that at all – it's just a preference.”
Physiological and behavioural differences
Scientists believe that there are differences in the brains and nervous systems of introverts and extroverts. For example, introverts are thought to be more sensitive than extroverts to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which gives us an immediate ‘buzz’ when we act quickly, take risks and seek novelty.
Introverts favour a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which makes us feel good when we turn inwards. Acetylcholine is linked to the parasympathetic side of the nervous system, which inhibits the body from overworking and restores it to a calm and composed state; dopamine to the sympathetic side, known as the “fight or flight” system.
In terms of behaviours, introverts tend to prefer one-to-one conversations; listen more; reflect before making decisions; share ideas when prompted, and struggle with change. Extroverts enjoy group conversations; speak more; make decisions quickly; speak up in meetings, and easily accept change. They are essentially polar opposites.
So, is it better to be an introvert or extrovert in the workplace?
Cultural and organisational bias
Society (particularly in Western cultures) has a bias towards extroverts, according to Cain, even during childhood. She points out that “education, by its nature, favours the extrovert because you are taking kids and putting them into a big classroom, which is automatically going to be a high-stimulation environment”.
Similarly, workplaces are often geared towards extroverts, with noisy open-plan offices, a focus on networking and brainstorming, and managers conditioned to hire and promote people who are “assertive, go-getting, and able to seize the day”.
A Sutton Trust analysis of BBC data conducted in 2016 found that highly extroverted people had a 25% chance of being in a higher-earning job. It is worth noting that people from more advantaged backgrounds (those whose parents had professional jobs) had significantly higher levels of extroversion and very substantially higher economic aspirations – particularly for men. So, this is a trend that also has an influence on social mobility and inclusion.
Clearly, if this this societal bias is real, it has significant consequences for people who identify as introvert, estimated at being between a third and a half of the population. If we’re part of that population, we need to think carefully about how best to manage that imbalance.
For leaders, it’s also an important consideration when we’re looking to create more inclusive workplaces.
The quiet revolution
In 2015, Cain formally launched her mission-based company Quiet Revolution, aiming “to unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all”. Her ultimate goal is to rebalance the power between extroverts and introverts, stressing the value each personality type brings to a team.
In a video for RSA, she pointed out that “any aspect of nature has its pros and cons. For too long, we’ve looked at introversion only through its disadvantages and extroversion only through its advantages. My vision of the world is a world of yin and yang, where there’s a space for introverts and a space for extroverts and it’s equal space”.
For example, introverts may excel at in-depth research, focused problem solving and listening to other people. They are often self-starters, great observers of detail and take calculated risks. Meanwhile, extroverts tend to be action-orientated, good at group work, and an assertive, energising force.
As Cain points out: “In companies, it has been found that the most effective teams are the ones that are a combination of introverts and extroverts. The two types are drawn to each other and really need each other.”
Which takes us back to the example of Apple’s ‘two Steves’.
Of course, it need not be that way round. Many well-known leaders of past and present identify themselves as introverts, including former US president Barack Obama, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and author and screenwriter J K Rowling. Famous extrovert leaders include boxer and activist Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Jr and UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
While 96% of leaders and managers display extrovert tendencies according to research published in Academy of Management Journal, a study from 2016 actually found that companies headed by introverts perform better. As Cain asserts: “Extroverts are more likely to be attracted to and selected for leadership roles, but they’re not better leaders than introverts”. Psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has regularly reminded us that there is no guaranteed relationship between a leader’s confidence, how good people believe themselves to be, and their competence, how good they actually are. Calm, thoughtful introverts with a tendency to stop and think, listen to others and engage in meaningful dialogue are often what organisations need.
The middle way: ambiverts
Understanding introversion and extraversion helps us to personally play to our strengths, identify our weaknesses and work better with others. It also helps leaders to better understand their team members. But is it really that black and white?
Psychiatrist Carl Jung (who popularised the terms in the 1920s) stressed that “there is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.” He admitted that “Those are only terms to designate a certain penchant, a certain tendency…. There is no such thing as a schematic classification.”
In Psychological Types, Jung wrote: "There is, finally, a third group … the most numerous and includes the less differentiated normal man … He constitutes the extensive middle group.”
Building on this, in 1947, psychologist Hans Eysenck coined the term “ambivert”, to describe a balance between the hypersensitivity of some introverts and the domineering attitude of some extroverts. An ambivert is now considered someone who exhibits qualities of both introversion and extroversion, depending on their mood and the context. It’s entirely possible, for example, for an introvert to exhibit extrovert behaviours when they want or need to, nailing that sales presentation or working a room at a conference, even if they are likely to have to recharge their batteries on their own afterwards.
Essentially, introversion/extroversion is a continuous dimension. Some people fall at either end of the spectrum, but most of us sit somewhere in the middle. A study conducted in 2014 by the American Trends Panel used a five-point scale, via which 3,243 participants described themselves as being closer to extroversion or introversion. Along the scale, it was found that 12% described themselves as very extroverted, while 5% considered themselves very introverted; 77% of respondents described themselves as falling somewhere between the two extremes. (The remaining 6% were unsure and not included in the results).
Not all introversion is the same
Further, in a paper published in 2011, psychologists, including Jonathan Cheek, a US professor of psychology at Wellesley College, identified four types of introversion: social, thinking, anxious, and restrained, under the ‘STAR’ system; it’s also possible to be a mix of types.
According to their theory:
- social introverts prefer to socialise in small groups instead of large groups — or spend time alone. They don’t necessarily feel anxious in large groups, they just prefer more intimate contexts.
- thinking introverts are introspective, thoughtful and self-reflective.
- anxious introverts feel awkward around other people. They often spend time replaying negative experiences in their minds.
- reserved introverts take a while to think before they speak or act.
The authors’ argument, therefore, is that introversion is a far more nuanced personality trait than previously described.
Why does it matter at work?
Cain has raised awareness of how those with introvert tendencies feel the world is built for, or by, Dale Carnegie and Tony Robins-type extroverts. However, the needs of introverts (and those who fall between the two) need to be taken into account – for the success of individuals, teams and organisations.
Not only does this mean addressing the predominance of extroverts in leadership positions, it means considering workplaces and working practices through the lens of different personality types. This might involve managing for personality type – which involves introverts learning how to manage extroverts, as well as the other way round.
It also involves mutual respect and cooperation. Author and leadership speaker Jennifer Kahnweiler identifies as an extrovert herself, but is a champion for introverts in business. Specialising in ‘introverted leaders’, she has written a number of insightful books, including Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference, and provides collaboration tips for extroverts.
Ultimately, getting the best out of extroverts and introverts (or thriving as one or the other) means ensuring that environments and practices are inclusive. As leaders, that means we need to understand that introvert-extrovert continuum and to be particularly alert to any bias in the way our organisations are structured and operate. We may need to consider how tasks are allocated or promotions given; how we conduct meetings more inclusively so that everyone feels they can contribute; how we nurture and champion people who may be more reticent about singing their own praises.
Understanding our own, and others’, preferences when it comes to the introversion-extroversion spectrum is an important starting point when it comes to self-awareness and leading with emotional intelligence. It’s also another key factor to consider when building our practice as inclusive leaders.
Are you an extrovert, introvert or ambivert? Take the Ted test by organisational psychologist Adam Grant
Test your understanding
1. Identify three positive characteristics of introverts at work.
2. Outline what is meant by the term “ambivert”.
What does it mean for you?
1. If you identify as an introvert, reflect on the challenges might you face at work, and as a leader? What might you do to mitigate these?
2. If you have team members who are introverts, consider two things you might do to make sure they feel properly included.
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