A few months ago I sat at lunch with two colleagues who, like me, volunteer some of their time for our company`s “women business network” and its events. We discussed options of chairmanship for one of our upcoming events and general public speaking related topics. From the outside world the three of us would have probably come across as extroverted women discussing business. How wrong can perceptions be. All three of us in different ways would probably in our daily business life come across as extroverts too but what we were discussing that day, besides the event, was the effort that is required in our world, to "become" an extrovert and the new book by Susan Cain, “Quiet”, its great success and the meaning of this phenomenon.
When asked if I am an extrovert years ago, my first reply was “yes!”. Surely I am not an introvert? Am I? I don`t really particularly like to stand up on stage, hold a speech, draw too much attention, wear bright colours or loud jewelry. Typical signs of an extrovert for many psychology tests. I do like time alone, I do like to listen before I make my mind up, as a teenager I would shy away from too much attention. But I now have no problems in giving presentations, in standing up on stage with a microphone, talking to a lot of different people at events and parties, at organizing social get-togethers or in feeling comfortable around others. So what happened? I trained myself over the years I guess. I now fall in the “ambivalent” group.
At a more or less unconscious level our society sends out clear signs that associate extroverts with winners, with happy people, with successful people in the business. Our society prizes extroversion, unlike the Eastern European, the Japanese and all the cultures of regions where Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism, Sufism etc. prevail, where introversion is given much more importance than extroversion.
“Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say. They are comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude.”
“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pijamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family.”
However humans are complex and unique, and because introversion-extroversion varies along a continuum, people may have a mixture of both orientations. A person who acts introverted in one situation may act extroverted in another, and people can learn to act "against type" in certain situations, falling into what Cain calls “ambivalent types”.
Can introverts be leaders? Is our cultural preference for extroversion in the natural order of things, or is it socially determined? Should you devote your energies to activities that come naturally, or should you stretch yourself?
As a recent business TV commercial, featuring an office worker losing out on a plum assignment ran:
BOSS TO TED AND ALICE: “Ted, I am sending Alice to the sales conference because she thinks faster on her feet than you”
TED: (speechless) …
BOSS: So, Alice, we will send you on Thursday….
TED: She does not!
As Cain puts it, “If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day. This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones get squashed.” Studies in group dynamics suggest that this is exactly what happens. We perceive talkers as smarter than quiet types even though intelligence test scores reveal this perception to be inaccurate.
Introverts can indeed be leaders, it might be more difficult in our society for them to emerge as such but once there they will have a sharp set of skills an extrovert won`t probably be able to count on. An introverted leader will be likely to show more empathy for his team and will be willing to listen to their ideas and implement suggestions, this could motivate the team to work harder. Extroverted leaders on the other hand have a natural ability to inspire, will end up doing all the talking and might be able to get more results from more passive workers.
The above topic is now a line of research, still in its early days.
So should we devote ourselves to improve in activities that do not come too natural to us? Pushing ourselves out there if we are born or have a tendency to be introverts and trying to keep quiet and listen more if we are born extroverts?
Research is ongoing on the topic and while we wait for more studies we could probably say that becoming aware of who we are and how we come across and pushing ourselves a little further surely can`t hurt us?
Are you an extrovert or an introvert? Here is a quick informal quiz to find out!
Sources: Quiet (S.Cain), Wikipedia