Thanks in part to the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, it’s become more common for businesses and managers to talk about introversion and extroversion in the workplace. Being a borderline case (part introverted, part extroverted), I believe I have a good feel for how introverts and extroverts function in the workplace and how their individual and collective behaviors can directly affect it. Today I’ll take some time to sort out those behaviors.
Overview of the two types
I’ll keep the mansplaining to a minimum here, but just for clarity’s sake, here are my broad definitions of these two personal behaviors.
Extroverts are individuals who derive much of their personal energy by being with and talking with other people, the more the merrier. They often do their thinking aloud and are at ease speaking with others in nearly any situation. They are often not fond of extended silences or “heavy” conversations and are comfortable speaking their mind or sharing their thoughts, personal, professional, or otherwise.
Introverts derive most of their energy from their inner lives and from solitude. Contrary to rumor, introverts are not complete hermits and they do talk with others. However, they are more cautious about expressing themselves, often thinking through exactly what they want to say before contributing to a conversation. Also, their interactions and conversations tend to be more concentrated and driven by the thoughts in their head than the social situations around them.
Why are we even talking about this?
We’ve had talkative and taciturn people since there have been people. Do these differences matter in the 21st century, where we have so many different means of communicating?
Beyond the workplace, it turns out that extroversion and introversion also carry over into our electronic and social media communications and even our politics. For example, Americans generally favor or respond positively to extroverted personalities in leaders (think JFK vs. Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush). Given a choice between a good talker and a good thinker, we’re more likely to go for the good talker because they appear more confident in expressing themselves. However, as Susan Cain notes in her book, there is zero correlation between the quality of ideas and the way they’re expressed.
Also note that no single person is 100% introverted or extroverted. We all exist on a sliding scale of introverted and extroverted behaviors and display traits of both.
How does this affect the workplace?
Just consider an obvious difference between extroverts and introverts: workplace conversation or, not to put too fine a point on it, noise (or lack thereof). Writers tend to be a quiet lot, but how happy or productive are they if their offices are placed near a rowdy group of sales and marketing executives? Or, conversely, how well will that same group of rowdy sales and marketing folks enjoy working in an office if they’re told to keep their freewheeling brainstorming sessions quiet? Or working with a writer who cannot employ peppy, attention-getting prose?
One of the nemeses of introverts is the open office plan, which is meant to facilitate conversation and collaboration among people who have easy eye contact and access to each other. For introverts who prefer a nice, cozy cubicle or better yet an office with a door to ensure privacy, open offices are a headache. For extroverts, they’re a chance to keep in easy contact with the people around them. As an extroverted introvert (or introverted extrovert–opinions vary), I dislike open office plans and only enjoyed working in one because the people working in said office were, on the whole, pretty quiet in the first place. Introverts like their quiet little caves where they private space to work out their thoughts and ideas.
Extroverts dominate meetings. They can’t help themselves. They are natural talkers and have no problem speaking their minds on topics of interest. Introverts will often wait until the end of a discussion, when the extroverts have talked themselves out and someone asks, “Are there any other questions or comments?” It’s important that they get that time to talk, however, or they will feel ignored or left out of business discussions.
Another thing to consider with meetings is their scheduling and frequency. Some meetings are set by the customer and must be worked around. Internal team meetings, however, should include some team input from everyone. Often extroverts want to have a meeting when they’re most awake and engaged, which can vary by person. Introverts prefer meetings at times when they’re not being productive on the job.
Team Outings/Team-Building Events/Social Activities
As a work-focused individual, I am not a fan of these little activities, which often equate to being the adult version of field trips, where zero productive work gets done. I might be overgeneralizing here, but my corporate experiences have led me to believe that introverts would prefer to avoid these activities unless they’re some serious work purpose behind them while the extroverts look at them as an opportunity to get to know their fellow coworkers better in a non-work setting. I have no solutions on this one–just be aware that some efforts at “team building” can have unanticipated outcomes, such as breeding resentment (by interfering with productive work) or creating team bonding as people whisper to each other how much they hate what they’re doing. Again: a little team input can to a long way.
Final Thoughts: Introverts and Extroverts in the Workplace
Again, no one is 100% introverted or extroverted. I’m certainly pretty blabby for an introvert, but I’m also quite protective of my personal time and quiet time. I also know extroverts who can talk your ear off but are dead serious about getting their jobs done. The bottom line of this personality-monitoring discussion is to encourage consciousness of how people react to work, other people, and the situations surrounding both. One person’s idea of a great time is an utter slog for someone else, and vice versa. How you choose to interact and navigate among the people around you can affect how well you build work relationships and get the work done (and, sorry to burst some bubbles, but the reason you’re with these folks is to work, not become best buddies). It’s worth taking the time to learn what makes your fellow coworkers and customers tick so the work flows smoothly. Part of that involves how much communicating is done in the first place.