Extroverts vs. introverts in the workplace

The first time I took the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), the results gave me some comfort and understanding. I had been fairly extroverted in my youth, but some long term experiences travelling and living alone helped me to realize the enjoyment I find when I have time to myself.

For those of you familiar with the MBTI, you’ll understand that I’m an ‘I’ on the E-I spectrum. This means that I’m an introvert. It doesn’t mean that I’m shy, but it means that I get my energy from focusing on my “inner world”. I often get asked, to my surprise (and annoyance), “Are you OK?” Apparently being deep in internal thought makes me look upset. What? Am I supposed to walk around with a goofy grin?

The results of an MBTI, like any other ‘personality’ test, can be used in a variety of ways. It’s easy to use your ‘type’ to offer excuses for your behaviour (“It’s OK that I always turn in work last minute; I’m a ‘P'”); instead, I try use my ‘type’ to understand the habits that I default to and the impacts that my behaviours have on those around me.

But enough about me. Here’s a breakdown of some general E vs. I characteristics.

Characteristics of ‘E’s and ‘I’s

Extrovert

Introvert
  • outgoing
  • people person
  • comfortable in groups
  • wide range of friends and acquaintances
  • jumps quickly into activities
  • gets energized by being around others
  • thinks aloud
  • “talker”
  • reflective
  • reserved
  • comfortable alone
  • small group of close friends
  • thinks before starting activities
  • gets energy from time alone
  • processes thoughts internally
  • “(over)thinker”

Impact on the Workplace

An estimated 75% of the general population is extroverted (Tieger & Barron-Tieger, 1995) and reward systems and job recognition are generally set up to value extroverts. Extroverts get rewarded because their work is apparent. They talk openly and often about what they’re working on and how busy they are. You see them and they just look like they’re getting things done. Lots of meetings, people to see, places to rush off too. They’re good at marketing themselves. And somehow, I swear they walk louder.

With extroverts, often “what you see is what you get.” They thrive on the world around them, so the world around them knows what’s going on when them.

But what about introverts?

Introverts…

  • like working in quiet spaces
  • enjoy working independently
  • are reluctant to delegate, but when do, provide little information
  • work well without supervision
  • think and reflect before taking action
  • sometimes share ideas only when prompted
  • listen well
  • appear calm under pressure
  • have good depth of knowledge

Unfortunately, these introvert characteristics can come off in a negative light. Introverts can appear to not be “team players”. They may seem aloof, slow, serious, secretive or lacking ideas. They seem not busy, not productive or not outwardly stressed enough given the pressured circumstances.

Who’s Responsible?

So how can the best be drawn out of introverts?

Supervisors of introverts

  1. Ask their opinion. If you don’t you may be missing out on a whole wack of great ideas.
  2. Be prepared. Give them information (e.g. a meeting agenda) beforehand so they have time to process their thoughts internally before having to share.
  3. Use email. If asking for important input, give your staff time to consider their thoughts rather than putting them uncomfortably on the spot.
  4. Delegate properly. Give them the authority to make decisions on their own without interrupting and micromanaging.
  5. Be flexible in recognition. Don’t assume everyone’s idea of fun and reward is a big party.
  6. Find out where credit is due. Introverts don’t often sing their own praises, so be sure you are thanking the right people when things go well.

Introverted staff

  1. Share your route of thought. When explaining your opinion or providing instructions, don’t assume that everyone else has gone through the same thought process, as obvious as it may seem to you.
  2. Prepare. Request or research information before meetings so that you can prepare your thoughts ahead of time.
  3. Share you successes. Make small daily goals to share a project you are working on, a great meeting you had, or a positive outcome that you have reached. It doesn’t have to be about bragging. Share your passion instead of your ego.
  4. Create space. Whether when working on an important project or debriefing from an intense meeting, find a quiet place.
  5. Share your ideas. Again, make small daily goals to speak up once in a group setting. And don’t fret afterward about whether or not people thought your idea was silly. They’ve probably moved on.
  6. Seek out other introverts. If you have an event or activity to go to, buddy up with an introvert. Use it as an opportunity to go out of your comfort zone and mingle, knowing you can rejoin your buddy if you need to.

In Summary…

Neither introverts nor extroverts are “better” – they are just different. In order to demonstrate personal and professional leadership, understanding self and others is important. Take the time to learn about your co-workers and how they operate.

Additional Implications for the Nonprofit Sector

  • Think not only about your staff, but also about your clients. Are programs and services developed and marketed in ways accessible to both introverts and extroverts?
  • Think even further to your donors. Are solicitations and fundraising activities developed and marketed in ways appealing to both introverts and extroverts?

More Resources

13 comments:

  1. As a Functional/Project Manager hybrid, I find that extroverts tend to cause more conflicts than introverts (who just want to be alone). Introverts can work well in a team, if approached properly and with respect (like anyone else).

    I have to disagree with some of your points about introverts, that they have a good depth of knowledge and work well without supervision. That’s irrelevant to being introvert or extrovert.

    1. Interesting that you find extroverts cause more conflicts – are these constructive conflicts that lead to innovation, or just destructive friction conflicts?

      As for your other points I think I phrased myself wrong (and I’ll likely update the blog). I should have been talking about preferences as opposed to skill/knowledge. I stand by the idea that introverts demonstrate a preference for a depth of knowledge, as much internal thinking and focus time may be spent on one topic. Oppositely, extroverts may demonstrate a preference for breadth of knowledge.

  2. I think introverts work well without supervision because they aren’t “talkers” and tend to stay on task more. In regards to good depth of knowledge, perhaps this is due to their listening abilities and ability to concentrate.

    1. Interesting insight Ginny. I also think it might be due to an interest in and time spent thinking about a topic. I think extroverts can concentrate too though, but perhaps prefer to keep eyes and ears open to new information?

      I struggle with this a bit because my reasoning would lead to extroverts being generalists vs. introverts being specialists, which doesn’t fit me (anecdotally). Dunno. I suppose the focus needs to be kept on preference, not ability.

  3. There’s a propensity for career advisers to focus on developing and proving leadership abilities. I think it’s especially difficult for introverts not used to standing in the spotlight to step up – and then they get bagged for being meek.

    Take for example, this post: http://rosettathurman.com/blog/2009/03/shine-while-your-lights-on-how-to-turn-your-internship-into-leadership/

    compared to this post: http://www.brazencareerist.com/2009/10/21/be-the-change-i-m-not-a-youth-leader-by-mandy-siu
    on followship

    That isn’t to say that all introverts are followers and vice versa. I know many introverted people who take on leadership roles because they’re driven and motivated, but ordinarily a large number of introverted people would rather not make a show of their work (no matter how good they are or how hard they work).

    A shame that society demonises introversion.

    1. Thanks for sharing the interesting links Young Urbanite. I think though that the ball gets missed when equating leadership to extroversion.

      I co-facilitate a leadership development workshop series at SFU (http://students.sfu.ca/studentleaders/passport) where we focus on personal leadership – values and goals, interpersonal communication, diversity awareness, and effective presentation of self.

      Many of these item are linked to the components of transformational leadership (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transformational_leadership#Components_of_concept). In this sense leadership has room for extroverts and introverts alike.

  4. That the many ‘suffer for the sins of the few’ seems to be a given — because we are all One Being mutually interacting on One Planet together. The polluted earth, air and water affects everyone indiscriminately. And everyone individually carries, to greater or lesser degree, the burden of responsibility for the conditions which affect the whole. In the end, ignorance of the laws of life is a poor excuse. The “intra’s” and “extra’s” will have to blend their contradictory worldviews.

  5. This is a very helpful article. I am an introvert w/some extrovert traits. I’ve mastered keeping my work life completely seperate from my personal life. The downside of that is few people in both my workplace & family understand my seperation between the two. But, I realize their lack of understanding is because they’re used to people being more open & sharing. Lol

  6. Really good information in here. I just wrote on a similar topic—ways to sort of be successful at work! I think you’re right that neither being extroverted nor introverted is better.

    It definitely can’t hurt to have qualities of both.

  7. hi Trina – i happened upon your blog and love it! Esp this article on introverts in the workplace (of which i am one and had no idea i was such a minority :). Love your writing!

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