Is there a bias against introverts in the workplace?

Introverts can have social skills as good as more outgoing people. And they’re not necessarily shy says Helen O’Callaghan.

FOR Harry Potter star Emma Watson, a big party is too much stimulation.

“Which is why I end up going to the bathroom! I need timeouts. I’m terrible at small talk.”

This example of a famous person’s introverted personality style is just one of many cited in Quiet Power, Growing Up As An Introvert In A World That Can’t Stop Talking. (Others are Beyoncé, J. K. Rowling, Einstein and Gandhi).

Emma Watson claims to retreat to the bathroom at parties, the classic sign that she is an introvert, which remains different to simply being shy
Emma Watson claims to retreat to the bathroom at parties, the classic sign that she is an introvert, which remains different to simply being shy

With her latest book directed at kids and teens – as well as their parents and educators – US author Susan Cain is continuing her mission to make quiet people feel they can be themselves. 

She started in 2012 with Quiet, The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, a New York Times bestseller for over three years. 

Then came her Ted Talk on Quiet Power – viewed over 13 million times.

A self-confessed introvert (“I prefer listening to talking, reading to socialising, and cosy chats to group settings”), Cain says the main difference between introverts and extroverts is in how they respond to stimulation, including social stimulation. 

“Extroverts crave large amounts of stimulation, whereas introverts feel their most alive, switched on and capable, when in quieter, more low-key environments – not all the time but most of the time.”

There are other differences. Introverts have great concentration and tend to focus on one task at a time. Extroverts tackle assignments quickly, make fast decisions and like multi-tasking and risk taking.

Kevin Quigley, research and innovation psychologist at Dublin-based Seven, Psychology at Work, says introverts tend to “think, talk and then think” whereas extroverts tend to “talk, think and then talk”. 

If you don’t know what an extrovert is thinking, he says, you haven’t listened. 

“If you don’t know what an introvert is thinking, you haven’t asked.” 

Susan Cain, Quiet Revolution LLC co-founder, speaks onstage at The New York Times New Work Summit on March 1, 2016 in Half Moon Bay, California.
Susan Cain, Quiet Revolution LLC co-founder, speaks onstage at The New York Times New Work Summit on March 1, 2016 in Half Moon Bay, California.

Cain says extroverts add life to a party – “they tend to be assertive, dominant and in great need of company” – while introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties but after a while wish they were home in their pyjamas. 

Introverts like people but prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and family. 

And they’re not necessarily shy – shyness is about fearing social disapproval, while introversion is a preference for non overly-stimulating environments.

Cain wants to champion introverts in a world that often doesn’t. 

So she founded Quiet Revolution to raise awareness of introvert skills and to introduce – in schools and workplaces – initiatives designed to harness those talents. 

She sees introvert skills as ability to reflect, listen, build relationships, think before acting and stay calm in tense situations. 

According to Cain about one-third to half of us are introverts. 

She cites other stats too: 50% of the US workforce self-identifies as introverts. 

Sixty-four percent of workers believe their organisation doesn’t fully harness talents of introverted employees. Meanwhile, 96% of leaders/managers self-identify as extroverts. 

“Which means leadership teams are often imbalanced and don’t fairly represent a diverse workforce.” 

This might, to some extent, explain findings from recent research conducted by Sutton Trust, a UK charity dedicated to improving social mobility through education. 

Their study found extroverted adults 25% more likely to earn over £40,000 annually than their quieter counterparts.

Cain sees a bias against introverts in most workplace cultures because – from embracing teamwork to brainstorming to open-plan offices – they’re set up to suit extroverts. 

Companies can “demand a tremendous amount of face-to-face interaction, in the form of team-building exercises and retreats, shared online calendars that announce employees’ availability for meetings and physical workplaces that afford little privacy”. 

She says the amount of space per employee shrank from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 by 2010.

Yet, “a mountain of recent data” on open-plan offices finds they reduce productivity, impair memory and are associated with high staff turnover. 

They’re often subject to loud uncontrollable noises – significant when considered alongside another study, cited by Cain, which finds being interrupted one of the biggest productivity barriers.

Nor is brainstorming all it’s cracked up to be. Referring to 40 years of research, Cain says studies show performance gets worse as group size increases. 

Reasons why range from some individuals sitting back and letting others do the work, to fear of looking stupid in front of peers. 

She points to organisational psychologist Adrian Furnham’s recommendation that talented, motivated people be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.

Cain isn’t saying face-to-face contact isn’t important or that colleague interaction doesn’t matter. But what gives companies the edge is maximising the strengths of all workers, introverts included. 

“If it’s creativity you’re after, ask employees to solve problems alone – either electronically or in writing – before sharing their ideas. Arrange for people to interact one-on-one or in small, casual groups.” 

As part of Quiet Revolution, Cain co-founded the Quiet Leadership Institute, which works with executives at organizations like NASA, Procter & Gamble and General Electric to help them better understand the strengths of introverted employees.

After a one-day course that looked at how to tap into introverts’ natural strengths, Roger Forsgren, director of NASA’s Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership, said: “Extroverts learned their co-workers were not anti-social. 

"They just need quiet time for reflection and prefer to listen closely in meetings and digest what they hear before deciding to speak. 

"Introverts learned that extroverts operate differently – they’re stimulated by group settings and discussions and sometime need to speak out loud in order to gather their thoughts.” 

Already expected to be mindful of employee difference across gender, culture and religion, employers might be forgiven for asking ‘where does it all end?’ when advised about introvert/extrovert personality types, says work psychologist Patricia Murray. 

“I’m not saying it’s another legal obligation, but it’s in employers’ best interest to know their employee [personality] tendency. Personality type isn’t something anyone can put on hold nine-to-five. If they do, there’s a psychic cost.” 

Most people instinctively recognise having a chatty, outgoing personality working in a lab on their own doesn’t fit. 

Similarly, it’s unwise to force too much society on the quiet reader-type, who likes people but spends lots of time alone. 

“They’ll feel overpowered and over-stimulated. What works better for introverts is to be in groups of two, coming up with ideas,” says Murray.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with teams going off to the woods to do activities together, but you have to give people choice. 

“You can’t force fun on people. ‘Fun’ for one could be agony for another. Sometimes there’s competition with these activities – ‘best’ and ‘worst’ prizes. 

"This can be humiliating – not only does the situation not help an introvert to grow [in workplace], it alienates them.” 

Employers need to motivate workers, but we’re not all motivated by the same thing. 

Murray points to certain jobs attracting introverts (IT, engineering) and others attracting extroverts (sales, marketing). 

What makes people attached to their jobs, she says, is how much they can be themselves in that space. 

“If they have to pretend, it’s fatiguing. They’ll look for another job or engage in presenteeism – there in body but not in mind.” 

If work atmosphere motivates just one personality type, it unwittingly discriminates against the other. 

And while many large IT companies here, like Google, have little pods on the landings – which individuals can go into for 10 minute thinks – this isn’t replicated too much otherwise, says Murray. 

“What seems to be happening in Ireland is employers are just cottoning onto the notion that people ‘should’ be doing brainstorming, team-building.” 

Kevin Quigley emphasises the need for balancing introvert and extrovert workplace needs. 

If the office is solely open-plan with no space for spending time alone, no space for reflection or deep thinking, this is difficult for introverts. 

“Vice versa is also true. Having a lot of people working alone with little room for social interaction is difficult for extroverts.” 

He agrees there’s an extrovert bias in Irish workplaces. Yet he sees awareness starting to happen, across a range of sectors, of the need for quiet spaces – the library in the office, the couch in the corner. 

“When the leadership finger is on the pulse – always asking employees what they like about the company, what could be improved – they’ll be on the ball and realise some staff like quieter space. 

"They’ll adapt. But a company, very focused on ‘this is the way we are’, mightn’t listen much to staff, might only recruit people like themselves.” 

In her book, Cain says middle and high school years (age 10-18) are difficult for introverts. 

“Hundreds of kids crammed together in a single building – it can feel as if the only way to gain respect and friendship is through vivacity and visibility.” 

But she doesn’t let introverts off the hook. 

“You can stretch like a rubber band. You can do anything an extrovert can do, including stepping into the spotlight.” 

Working with others in a group is, after all, an essential life skill. 

Cain launched a pilot programme for schools that want to ‘quietise’ their curricula and school culture (visit www.Quietrev.com; also www.Parenting.quietrev.com). 

Yet, she encourages introverts to go to the edge of their comfort zone: in a group, find the right role (eg taking notes) or be quiet but not silent (opt for one-on-one conversations with key group members).

“But, you should return to your true self when you’re done,” she says. 

Introverts need “restorative niches”. 

Just as Batman needed a Batcave and Superman a Fortress of Solitude, introverts need zones of quiet.

Outgoing or not? Try our test

Where do you fall on the introvert/ extrovert spectrum? 

Answer ‘true’ or ‘false’, whichever answer applies more often than not.

1. I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.

2. I often prefer to express myself in writing.

3. I enjoy solitude.

4. I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame and status.

5. I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter to me.

6. People tell me I’m a good listener.

7. I’m not a big risk-taker.

8. I enjoy work that allows me to ‘dive in’ with few interruptions.

9. I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close friends or family members.

10. People describe me as ‘soft-spoken’.

11. I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it’s finished.

12. I dislike conflict.

13. I do my best work on my own.

14. I tend to think before I speak.

15. I feel drained after being out and about, even if I’ve enjoyed myself.

16. I often let calls go through to voicemail.

17. If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled.

18. I don’t enjoy multitasking.

19. I can concentrate easily.

20. In classroom situations, I prefer lectures to seminars.

The more often you answered ‘true’, the more introverted you probably are.

This is an informal quiz from Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet, The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking’, not a scientifically validated personality test.


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