When you were younger and the teacher announced, “Today, we’re working in groups,” How did you react? Did you feel dread and butterflies in your stomach? Have you always preferred working alone, digesting the assignment and slowly making sense of your thoughts? Were you the one who would raise their hand in class or would you stay quiet with your hands at your side even though you knew the answer?
If you answered “yes” to any of the previous questions, you may see yourself as an introvert and maybe you have received the message overtime that somehow having a quiet and introverted style was not necessarily the right way to go. There is a common misconception that extroverts make great public speakers and are excellent networkers – two things CEOs and organizational leaders must be—and introverts are not. In fact, there are many people who see introversion as a barrier to leadership. How does that affect your mental health?
But introverts have a lot to offer to the workplace. When it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best. A third to a half of the population are introverts - one out of every two or three people you know! So even if you're an extrovert yourself, I'm talking about your coworkers and your spouses and your children and the person sitting next to you right now.
Introversion is not the same as being Shy
Shyness is about fear of social judgment. Introversion is more about, how do you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation. As Susan Cain put it in her famous TED Talk, “introverts feel at their most alive and they’re most switched-on and they’re most capable when they're in quieter, more low-key environments”. So the key then to maximizing our talents is for us all to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us.
We must, however, consider the bias towards favoring extrovert qualities. Our schools and our workplaces are designed mostly for extroverts. Think about it. When you picture a typical classroom there are pods of desks -four or five or six or seven kids all facing each other. Kids are working on countless group assignments. Even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you think would depend on solo flights of thought, kids are now expected to act as committee members. And for the kids who prefer to go off by themselves or to work alone, those kids are seen as outliers often or, worse, as problem cases. And the vast majority of teachers’ report believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert, even though introverts often get better grades and are more knowledgeable, according to research. The same thing is true in our workplaces.
A lot of workplaces have open concept offices, without walls, where we are subject to the constant noise and gaze of our coworkers. And when it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful, much less likely to take outsize risks -- which is something we might all favor nowadays. Interesting research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School has found that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do, because when they are managing proactive employees, they're much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas, whereas an extrovert can, quite unwittingly, get so excited about things that they're putting their own stamp on it, and other people's ideas might not as easily then bubble up to the surface. In fact, some of our transformative leaders in history have been introverts--Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Gandhi -- all these peopled described themselves as quiet and soft-spoken and even shy. And they all took the spotlight, even though every bone in their bodies was telling them not to.
What is it about these people that make them so great? It is because solitude is a crucial ingredient often to creativity. Darwin took long walks alone in the woods. Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss dreamed up many of his amazing creations in a lonely bell tower office that he had in the back of his house in La Jolla, California. Steve Wozniak invented the first Apple computer sitting alone in his cubicle in Hewlett-Packard where he was working at the time. And he says that he never would have become such an expert in the first place had he not been too introverted to leave the house when he was growing up.
Now, of course, this does not mean that we should all stop collaborating -- case in point, is Steve Wozniak famously coming together with Steve Jobs to start Apple Computers! Everyone comes to the table with their own strengths and do what they do best. Don’t be afraid of being who you are.
How are you bringing your unique skills and who you are to your workplace?
To learn more on this topic, check out these great resources:
Book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
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