Before you scroll by thinking that this isn’t relevant to you, did you know that up to 50% of any population identify as an introvert? So, chances are, they are in your employ whether you’re aware of it or not. Many will have been pretending in order to fit in and get on, whilst others are overlooked and undervalued for being the quiet ones. Some leaders and managers may even mistakenly think the quiet ones lack ambition because they don’t push themselves forward. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Facing the extraversion bias
At some point, organisations became fixated on the extravert ideal, so people are judged on how often they speak up, how hungrily they push themselves forward for promotion and how popular they are with their colleagues. Organisations can be guilty of unconscious, and in some cases conscious bias in favour of those who demonstrate these extraverted behaviours. At the very time we are supposedly focused on diversity, equity & inclusion, the extraversion bias is endemic in everyday practices and processes.
As one of my C-Suite clients says, the extraversion bias seems to be the last acceptable prejudice in the workplace. Time to make it unacceptable.
Debunking the myths around Introversion
Many people still don’t understand the neurodiversity that is introversion so it’s time to clarify. Actually, the term introvert has been used since the 17th century meaning to turn within and direct inward. In the 20th century, it was Carl Jung who introduced us to the counter-attitude of the extravert, meaning to ‘turn outwards’. Jung clearly defines the difference between introverts and extraverts and it’s simply where each get their mental energy from; so what drains and what charges mental batteries.
In simple terms, introverts turn inwards to recharge their batteries, whilst extraverts turn outwards. Introverts have a ‘think-say-think’ communication process so need time to get their thoughts clear. They may not contribute much if they don’t get to the ‘say’ part of their process before the conversation moves on. As a result, introverts are often thought of as not having an opinion or being too shy to speak when the real problem is that others don’t understand their communication process.
Because they don’t fit the extraversion ideal, introverts can be considered deficient in some way and weird, yet functional neuroimaging studies show how the brains of introverts and extraverts light up differently when stimulated in the same way. So, introverts are not weird, just wired differently.
Finally, introversion is not the same as social anxiety, misanthropy,shyness or depression, yet they are often conflated.
What stresses introverts
Let’s remind ourselves, that stress occurs when the pressures one experiences are outweighed by the ability to cope. We already know that introverts are overstimulated mentally, so any additional stimulation is likely tobe the primary cause of stress. This is entirely at odds with extraverted employees, who need that external stimulation in the form of social interaction and active experiences.
What counts as additional stimulation then? This will vary from individual to individual, but typically will include
- Poorly chaired, impromptu meetings, with no clear agenda
- Chatty Cathys or Calvins who talk constantly or narrate their thoughts out loud
- Spending too long in a busy open-plan office where it’s difficult to think
- Being put on the spot and expected to provide an immediate answer
- Attending busy networking events and conferences
Once stressed, introverts are likely to keep their head down and rely on their resourcefulness; one of their real strengths. So, at the very time they could be asking for help, they become more self-reliant.
How then to reduce stress?
Given that stress is experienced when there is an imbalance between pressure and the ability to cope, it’s important to look at ways of reducing the pressure and increasing their ability to cope. In both cases, this involves allowing introverts sufficient time and space. Time to get away from the hustle and bustle. Time to breathe. Time to collect their thoughts. Time to recharge their batteries either in solitude or in companionable silence. Enabling and even encouraging them to create effective coping mechanisms and strategies, will pay dividends in the long run. Managers and leaders tend to want to encourage people to talk when stressed, after all, it’s good to talk isn’t it? This may be a useful strategy for more extraverted types, but unlikely to work for an introvert, as being forced to talk with someone who doesn’t understand them and their needs just increases their stress.
Remembering also that when stressed, our natural behaviours become more extreme, we may notice the normally calm introvert either become flustered or withdraw altogether. And the introvert who seems totally in control may lose their temper quite spectacularly.
What’s really needed is psychological safety, so introverts can be themselves and ask for what they need without fear of ridicule or retribution. Then they can confidently ask for time and space.
What reduces an introvert’s productivity?
We know that stress in general reduces productivity, but how specifically for the introvert? We only have to look at our working environments to get the first insight. Open-plan offices have been the norm since the early 1900s when they emulated the factory setting, with rows of desk in the middle and manager’s offices at the front our around the edges. This open-plan setting with the inherent noise, interruptions and distractions doesn’t suit introverted employees, as it prevents them for doing their best work.
Many introverts may have enjoyed the working from home option through recent lockdowns and are probably not keen to return to the office now things are opening up.
Another significant factor is working for a manager who doesn’t understand their aspect of neurodiversity. Constantly receiving feedback to be more extraverted is wearing and demoralising. It doesn’t work to tell an introvert to speak up more, push themselves forward and speak up. That just encourages inauthenticity which adds to the stress load.
What employers can do
“When a flower doesn’t bloom,
you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”
Alexander den Heijer
Firstly, implement a true hybrid working option where employees get to chose where they get their work done. Smart businesses have recognised that this is the way forward as it seems we’ll be dealing with this pandemic for some time to come. This is not just for the benefit of introverts either. It is true that extraverts may be champing at the bit to get back into the office as they’ve missed the banter, the chat around the water cooler and the general buzz. But many people have reconsidered their priorities over the last 20 months or so and are looking at the benefits of quality family or personal time and the reduced commuting time and cost.
Secondly, take time to get to know the true strengths of your employees as the more you can help them own and play to their strengths, the better the productivity will be. Introvert strengths include
- Thoughtful contribution
- Great listeners and assimilators
- Diligent and tenacious problem solvers
- Calming presence
- Good at defusing drama
- Independent and resourceful
- Great servant leaders
I don’t know many organisations that wouldn’t benefit from more of the qualities above. Great managers and leaders know how to get the best from their people rather than try to create cookie-cutter employees. They know how to avoid the similarity, confirmation and proximity bias that less secure leaders demonstrate.
Thirdly, allow and even encourage regular short breaks so the introverts can recharge without feeling guilty. We have all spent far too long staring at screens recently, so it’s a good habit to get into anyway. If an introvert asks to wear headphones at work, it’s not because they’re skiving or antisocial. It’s because they’re struggling to hold on to the charge in their mental batteries in order to do their best work. And isn’t that what you employ them for?
I believe employers have a responsibility to enable all of their employees to develop, flourish and contribute. That means creating a psychologically safe workplace where they can be authentic and play to their strengths as they contribute to your business.
And with up to 50% identifying as an introvert, you’re potentially leaving an awful lot of talent on the table untapped if you continue to pursue the extravert ideal.
About JoannaRawbone, founder of Flourishing Introverts:
Joanna has spent more than 24 years working with 000’s of international clients through her own training & coaching consultancy, Scintillo Ltd. During this time, and through her own earlier experiences, she has seen just how problematic the Extraversion bias in organisations is. It negatively impacts employee engagement, retention and productivity. It also impairs the physical and mental health & well-being of employees with the obvious consequences.
Recognising that it was time for action, Joanna founded Flourishing Introverts, a platform to:
* support those who want to fulfil their potential without pretending to be something they’re not.
* educate and inform organisations about the true cost of overlooking their introverts
* promote positive action and balance the extraversion bias
Joanna has a real passion for helping her clients make the small but sustainable changes that really make a difference. Being a functioning introvert, her clients value her ability to listen to more than the words, understand things from their perspective and co-create robust, pragmatic solutions.