Balancing the introvert-extravert equation
Let me start by being up-front. I’m an introvert.
I’m also a professional woman, now a coach and author, formerly an HR professional, and a leader.
I’m here to whistle softly on behalf of introverts, since banging drums would be too noisy.
If you’re quiet too, that is OK, whatever you’ve been taught to believe.
Challenging the status quo
Until relatively recently, Western culture has worked on an assumption that extraverts get things done and introverts, well, introverts are content to be in the background, don’t want to be leaders, and are not high achievers.
The authors of The Introverted Leadership Toolkit, produced by South Central NHS and the Welsh Government in the UK, quotes from a high school exam revision text that suggests:
“People can be divided into two identified types:
Introverts – these are people who are quiet and self-centred, not high in confidence, not looking to lead
Extraverts – confident and outgoing people with high opinions of themselves, they tend to be leaders.” ( (Bizley K., Examining Physical Education for AQA. Heinemann 2001: p64)
Because of the prevalence of such wildly inaccurate beliefs, introverts grow up believing they are second-rate, and employers have undervalued and under utilized the gifts, talents and strengths of up to half their employees.
So what can we do to make sure introverts and extraverts are equally recognised and valued for what they can contribute?
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The key differences
Carl Jung, the psychologist who first defined introversion and extraversion, said “there is no such thing as a pure introvert or a pure extravert. Such a man (sic) would be in a lunatic asylum”. It’s a spectrum, and there are many subtle differences between introverts and extraverts, but the key ones are these:
- Introverts draw their energy from within and need quiet time to recharge. extraverts draw their energy from being with and bouncing off other people.
- Extraverts are energised by social interaction. Introverts are drained by it, need high energy to be at their best in group settings and recovery time afterwards.
- Introverts process their thinking internally and tend to speak when they have processed. extraverts love to think aloud.
If we start out from the assumption that extraversion is the way to be, we risk a raft of misunderstandings. Firstly, we ‘innies’ as Beth Buelow calls us, start to believe the hype and put massive energy into trying to fit the extravert brief. Witness Susan Cain, bestselling author of Quiet, the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, who became a Wall Street lawyer to prove she could, and fortunately found her true gift in her quietness.
Secondly, we continue to operate in parallel communication modes. Introverts’ silent processing is misread by their extravert colleagues as ignoring the extrovert or having nothing useful to say. As fellow coach and introvert Elaine Hopkins says in a recent guest post on my blog, “we can negotiate”, and we need to explain how we process."
First, know yourself
Functioning well as an introverted professional and leader needs self-knowledge and self-acceptance above all else. If we are acting as we think we should rather than from our deep core, then we’re being inauthentic. People pick up inauthenticity at a subliminal level and reject it. If we’re comfortable in our own skin, then we’re in a more centred and balanced place when it comes to getting what we need to perform at our best.
Many organisations use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), based on Jung’s original theory, to help raise the awareness of professionals and their leaders. If you haven’t had your own MBTI report, its US publishers, CPP, have made a self-administered version available online. It’s a starting point.
What really helps is becoming acutely aware of situations that challenge you and of the times when you’re on a roll. Take some quiet time at the end of your day – you’re good at that – sit comfortably, upright and balanced, take a few deep, calming breaths, and ask yourself:
- What has gone well today? How did that feel, especially in my body? (Introverts spend a lot of time in our heads.) What will help me remember to connect with that feeling in future?
- What have I found challenging? How did that feel in my body? What would have made a difference? What will I do differently next time?
- What do I need to do now to recharge my batteries?
Some useful resources
Watching the development of books and websites celebrating and supporting introversion, I’m reminded of the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s, with which I identified strongly if angrily. Introversion is the new feminism, and by raising awareness of the true value of introverts we can slowly overturn the myths surrounding it.
I remember being alone in a room in the ‘70s when a man walked in, looked at me, said “oh, there’s nobody here” and walked out again. I see introverts now from a similar perspective.
Here are some of my favourite sources of inspiration:
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