In college, I read Susan Cain’s non-fiction book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. An introvert myself, I was intrigued by the subject matter because, as Cain puts it, Western culture fails to understand the abilities of introverted people, leading to a waste of talent and happiness. We claim to value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the archetype extravert. Extraversion is an appealing trait, but it has become a standard to which we feel we must conform.
A Little History
America’s Industrial Revolution was a major force behind our cultural evolution. Prior to the rise of American industry, a vast majority of Americans lived on farms or in small towns, interacting with individuals they had known their entire lives. However, when the twentieth century arrived urbanization and immigration fostered the growth of cities. Citizens converted into employees as they found themselves no longer working with neighbors, but strangers.
In order to make a good impression on people to whom they had no civic or family ties, Americans adopted the belief that an outgoing personality would ultimately lead to social and financial success. Fast-forward to the 21st century and we have become increasingly skilled at shaping our own online and offline personae. We now inhabit a world in which status, income, and self-esteem depend on our ability to be the ideal extravert.
Introversion vs Extraversion
The bias against the quiet leads introverts to adapt the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with their personality. At school many introverts, myself included, have been prodded to “come out of your shell.” To this day I am told, “you’re in your head too much” – a phrase which suggests that there is something wrong with my preference for reflection. There is, however, another way to describe these individuals: thinkers.
Introverts and extraverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Extraversion tends to be manifested in outgoing, talkative, energetic behavior, whereas introversion is manifested in more reserved and solitary behavior. There are also obvious differences in how the two complete tasks. Extraverts tackle assignments quickly, make fast decisions, are comfortable with multitasking, and enjoy risk taking. Introverts, on the other hand, work more slowly and deliberately; they like to focus on one task at a time and are good at concentrating.
Additionally, our personalities shape our social styles. The extravert tends to be self-confident, dominant, and in need of company. Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills, but need to recharge by being alone. They prefer to devote social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. Introverts listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.
Personality in Business
The extravert ideal permeates every aspect of our corporate life and culture. It has a profound impact on how we structure our offices, our expectations of creativity, and who is chosen for leadership positions. Although introverts don’t at first show the particular qualities associated with leadership, research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School of Business indicates that introverted leaders can produce better outcomes than extraverts, as they are more likely to let proactive employees run with their ideas than their extraverted counterparts. Businesses would benefit from both styles of leadership, though we currently tend to only train and develop extraverted individuals.
Introversion and extraversion interact with our other personality traits and personal histories to produce widely different people. To be happy and productive, we owe it to ourselves to be true to our personality type. Similarly, it’s important for managers to recognize the personality types of those they manage, and be able to structure teams and projects based on individual strengths and weaknesses.
Are you an introvert or an extravert? How do you feel your personality type impacts your job performance?