Introverts. Ambiverts. Extroverts. The social conversation about how misunderstood they are is all the rage these days. Research on misconceptions about extroverts making stronger leaders, and the need to value the contemplative nature of introverts has raised important questions about how our cultural narrative has long over-prized extroversion…perhaps to our detriment.
I spoke with Susan Cain, renowned expert on the power of introversion and best-selling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, about why so many people feel compelled to appear more outgoing than they really are. Her TED talk, with nearly fifteen million views, has helped fuel her “Quiet Revolution” that is liberating the strength of introverts from the oppression of a society that over-reveres extroverts. Personally, as an introvert working in an extroversion-demanding career, I found Susan’s wisdom deeply comforting. Says Cain, “Since the industrial revolution, when we became a society where you have to work alongside people to whom you had to prove yourself, we have become a culture of personality. From the earliest age, our children have been reinforced with messages suggesting that if you want to be loved and successful, you have to be more extroverted than you really are.” Some research suggests that many introverts are uncomfortable even admitting their introversion.
Watch On Forbes:
Selection and promotion systems within organizations have also been hijacked by our natural gravitation toward outgoing personalities. Introverts are twice as likely to be passed over for promotions or plum assignments because they appear to be more cautious and risk-averse. Plus, the attention-seeking behavior required to self-promote gets extroverts more noticed among a sea of candidates for advancement. To counteract this, Cain suggests organizations talk about real role models within their management ranks who are both introverts and highly-effective leaders. Says Cain, “At LinkedIn, where we have done work to help the organization harness the talents of introverted leaders, Pat Wadors, LinkedIn’s Chief Human Resources Officer, talks openly about being an introvert, the value of quiet reflection in a busy job and their importance to the organization. Organizations pay attention to the examples you hold up.”
So for you introverted leaders feeling obligated to don more gregarious dispositions than might come naturally, here are three important reasons to simply play to your true strengths, quieter though they may feel.
1.You Can Offer Your Greatest Impact
Introverts can teach the organization, especially their extroverted counterparts, how to listen attentively, avoid interrupting and ask questions to draw out better ideas. Instead of forming quick judgments, introverts can model what it means to make measured judgments. Cain warns, “There is no correlation between doing the most talking and having the best ideas. If you watch, you’ll notice extroverts are doing a disproportionately higher degree of talking during a meeting.” By contrast, introverts have the benefit of more readily listening closely to what’s being said. Absent the need to put their mark on all ideas, they can build the confidence of those hesitant to compete for air time to have their ideas heard.
2.You Won’t Confuse Your Colleagues
Having assumed a learned set of extroverted behaviors, it’s possible for introverts to send mixed signals to their colleagues. When their inherent need for quiet solitude goes unmet, they can feel exhausted, even irritable. Cain cites social psychologist Brian Little, “He talks about reputational confusion which occurs when your reputation among your peers is different from who you really are. You create expectations among those you lead and you start to feel you are letting them down if you don’t live up to that reputation.” The result can be a self-perpetuating cycle of confusion and uncertainty in key relationships. To alter the cycle requires open conversation between people to reset expectations and shift the reputation.
3.You Can Avoid Unwanted Stress
When introverts’ legitimate needs for solitude and autonomy go unmet, it causes stress. For many leaders who’ve convinced themselves they are more extroverted than they really are, this stress may be unconscious. A few weeks ago, I was with a large client group for the weekend, with more than 150 Sales people having their typical socially-packed, high-energy offsite. About two-thirds into the weekend, I quietly walked out of a session and went back to my hotel room. It was like an autoimmune response, as reflexive as sneezing. I simply needed to be alone and quiet and away from people. Many introverts tolerate such stress for fear of being misunderstood. But Cain suggests, “You can normalize the conversation about preferences. You can say, ‘I really love to work uninterrupted for hours at a time. Please don’t take it the wrong way.’” Many introverts fear being perceived as weak or without conviction. Again, this is a misconception only introverts can help correct. Says Cain, “If you are operating from a place of true conviction, people will know it. Soft-spokenness isn’t a diluter of conviction. You can practice this – listen to how you are describing a movie you loved or a book you were moved by. Humans can detect many things through the social cues you send, not just the volume or intensity of your words. You send signals you aren’t even aware of.”
Cain urges against broad generalizations. “While people often correlate introversion and humility, or extroversion and self-centeredness, those aren’t always true. There are arrogant introverts and humble extroverts.” She also reminds us we can adapt our natural fixed traits to suit work environments. “It’s perfectly ok to step outside your comfort zone and adapt to the requirements of your environment. Introversion and extroversion are a continuum and we can broaden the range on which we participate.” Sometimes it is necessary for introverts to become more assertive than they might be comfortable with, just as some extroverts may have to pull back their participation to allow others to offer new ideas. She concludes, “As long as you are doing so mindfully and with intention, it’s fine.”
If nearly half the population are introverts, we are missing important contributions if they are hiding from their quieter natures, feeling obligated to assume personalities they believe others expect. Fellow introverts, let’s leave extroversion to the true experts – the extroverts. Let’s come out into the beautiful light of introversion and assume our rightful place as leaders…quietly.