In a world of hustle and bustle, the life of an introvert can be fairly difficult. Imagine being engaged in a task that requires high concentration, such as looking for a lost earing in the middle of a tennis court. Now imagine an automatic ball launcher keeps shooting balls directly at you, while you do so. Wouldn’t you get tired quickly, and far less efficient in your search? This is how many feel during work, when sudden and often repeating distractions occur at or near their desk.
However, the struggle of an introvert doesn’t end in the office. Networking at conferences, some with thousands of attendees, is a central part of an academic career. Picture yourself entering a huge hall, with bright neon lights, hundreds of people in each aisle, and a background that forces you to yell to be heard. In a typical two-hour poster session, you’re expected to acquire the information you need while also efficiently introducing your own work to colleagues. An introvert may describe the experience as akin to that of riding a terrifying rollercoaster while maintaining a smile on your face.
During the holidays, I read a very good book; Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain, which got me thinking about Introverted Leaders. I have long held the belief that we are all capable of being great leaders, regardless of who we are. Authentic leadership comes down to knowing yourself well and using great leadership skills to share the vision and purpose of your business while engaging and empowering others to step up. Introverts are every bit as capable of achieving this, as are extroverts. In fact, some of the most successful leaders out there, including those I have reported to over the years, would definitely be considered introverts. Some incredibly successful introvert leaders who come to mind would have to be Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Marissa Meyer and Warren Buffet just to name a few.
Today, I know that introversion is a common trait. Unlike shyness, which is more about a fear of being judged negatively, introversion is defined as a preference for quiet, less stimulating environments. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung was the first to propose differentiating individuals along an introvert-extravert axis. Writing in the 1920s, he described introverts as preferring to direct their attention inward, to their own feelings and thoughts, and how they lose energy during social interactions. Extraverts, by contrast, direct their attention outward, gain energy from social interactions, and lose energy during periods of solitude.
For the longest time, we have associated leadership with extroverts. We are inclined to listen to outgoing, assertive, and confident people, albeit what they speak of may be wrong or negative. The extrovert easily garners the attention and consideration of others, with respect to sharing their ideas. So, it seems that they garner more rapport, especially within a society which thrives on communication. However, if we consider the vast number of introverts among us, approximately 50 percent of people according to research, then it is quite ridiculous to believe that they are intrinsically better leaders.
Introversion is not something to be fixed – but a blessed source of human diversity. However, as mentioned, our society functions on a fast-paced work culture, with much to little down time. For many, they would consider introverts as incapable of adapting to such an environment, simply due to their preference for alone time and introspection. Society’s praise and acceptance of extraversion has led many introverts to suppress different aspects of their personality. Yet, there is nothing inherently wrong with introversion whatsoever, neither is it a ‘personality flaw’.
From childhood, introverts are faced with difficulties, with respect to learning and socializing. While big classroom environments may be cost-efficient, it is by no means the best model for everyone. Some will struggle to collaborate amongst a large group of peers, due to the constant requirement to share and contribute through words. Others will experience overwhelming anxiety, for instance, if they are called upon to answer a question in front of the class. In situations like these, it seems near impossible for a compromise to be made, which mounts pressure on these individuals to ‘adapt’.
Simple changes across society could be made to mitigate the inequities faced by introverts. In the education system, for example, designated spaces in schools could provide periodic shelter for those who need to recharge. Access to online learning and sharing platforms with asynchronous communication provides opportunities for them to think and research an area, without the pressure to respond immediately. Finally, devising other methods for participation in class, such as the decision to write their ideas instead of presenting them verbally, could also help rebalance the traditional inequity.
In business settings, workers should have more autonomy in choosing their working conditions. In meetings, stating the topics to be discussed in advance could allow more time for introverts to prepare and process the information. Allocating time for each attendee to speak could also give introverts the chance to express their thoughts. Discussion should be held, with regards to the best platform for disseminating knowledge, brainstorming, and reaching decisions. While small changes, nonetheless, they alleviate some of the mental strain and anxiety, thus allowing them to perform at their best.
It is worth noting, at times, there will be a difference with regards to how much social interaction one needs. The introvert would much rather be left to work on the job at hand, without going to regular group meetings. If needed, they would much rather have one-on-one conversations. On the other hand, the extrovert thrives on constant interaction and conversation with others. Meetings and brainstorming sessions are no problem since they enjoy voicing their ideas and opinions.
As a society, we need to acknowledge and embrace the introverts amongst us. Too often, we expect them to work outside of their comfort zone, in a matter unlike themselves. While I am sure there are times that they do, it may be time to show some much-needed compassion. Maybe, we need to listen more, as opposed to overwhelming someone and dominating the conversation. At times, we should seek insight, ensure they feel understood, and be respectful of those we are surrounded by. According to Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, introverts may bring more to the table, since they are focused on the task at hand. As a leader, one needs to display authenticity, with themselves and others. In doing so, they seek to understand all of those around them, with the goal of bringing out the genius within them. As we do for extraverts, let us acknowledge the voices, who have long gone unheard.
“Quiet people have the loudest minds.” Steven Hawking.