Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you prefer environments where you have lots of social and professional interactions where everyone is tolerant of interruption as a means of promoting collaboration? Or do you prefer to get the information you need to complete a task and then head off into a nice quiet place and just get things done?
When I talk about the character and context component of the 5Cs model of human behaviour (let’s be honest – that’s what it is), there’s a strong temptation to ignore some of the core archetypes of behaviour that represent the truth of a person’s character and how they operate. But in an industrial/professional context, one archetype we can’t ignore is the introvert/ambivert/extrovert continuum. When we want to get the best out of our employees, we need to recognise their truth with respect to their preferred modes of work and collaboration, support that truth, and find ways to maximise its productivity. Putting an extrovert into a closed off office and assigning them work that requires a hard slog preparing complex information for other people is not always very practical. Likewise, putting an introvert into an open-plan cubicle farm with lots of conversations bouncing backwards and forwards and pulling them into one meeting after another is not a great way to get good work out of them either. There needs to be a balance at an individual level which allows people to find their own balance in how much and how often they need to interact with co-workers.
Unfortunately, as Susan Cain outlines in her excellent TED Talk “The Power of Introversion”, many – in fact most – workplaces do not have a people-care or management strategy that contains any reference to tailoring working experiences to people’s preferred interaction styles. One of the most common examples of this is a preference against having professionals working from home. Many managers feel like a work from home situation robs them of the power to monitor the attention and output of an employee. They feel they are not doing their job as a manager if they are not able to steer their employees in the direction of delivering tangible work. And while that might be a valid approach for some extroverted employees whose attention DOES waver, that’s not always a helpful environment for more introverted employees to function in. So trusting that when an introverted employee wants to work from home, they will probably work at their optimum efficiency is something that many managers struggle to deal with. But this is a function of workplace culture, not of measurably different outcomes. Most employees will actually produce far more work when left to their own devices and allowed to plow through in the midst of flow as long as they have access to the knowledge resources they need.
Which then brings us to tribal knowledge vs documentation. Many people – particularly in technical fields – are huge fans of agile methods because they see them as “documentation light”. That’s valid for extroverts who are part of a loyal cadre of workers who are happy to remain in a workplace full of happy people where their individual knowledge and their ability to communicate it on demand makes them feel important and valuable. But to an introvert, agile methods that do not include a documentation step are their worst nightmare. Because introverts value their own interruption free time to work, they are less likely to approach an extroverted subject matter expert directly. They would rather try to intuit the knowledge required from code structures, templates, etc… and make intuitive leaps to fill in the gaps where documentation is not available. Because introverts are less facile in being able to ask for the information they need, they often miss important details in briefings from SMEs when they have them, and this creates its own risk. However, if you give an introvert access to good quality documentation that provides them with not just the data, but the context they need to deliver their own work, then they are again on a path to optimal efficiency. So agile or not – quality documentation matters.
Introverts often have more difficulty being considered for leadership roles; despite a lot of data suggesting they are better at getting results out of other people than extroverts (as discussed in Susan Cain’s talk). Likewise, introverts can find interview situations difficult, and have issues putting information that would reveal something about themselves in CVs/resumes and cover letters. This places them at a disadvantage in professional life which should probably be considered discriminatory. Unfortunately, our 1960’s model of workplace culture places more value on being able to sell, to communicate a “wow factor” – that is compelling to other extroverts.
So let’s talk a little about what you get when you hire an introvert.
- An introvert is more likely to dig deeper into a problem domain than an extrovert, and more likely to produce solutions that solve more than one problem. Extroverts are more likely to only address the surface issue and will need to work with other people to build solutions that address more than a single problem. An extrovert may deliver a result sooner, but that result will generally have less value than the one delivered later by an introvert.
- An introvert is likely to deliver deeper solutions and insights than an extrovert. Because they spend more time thinking and less time communicating, they have more time to absorb and synthesise information from multiple sources. Sometimes deep matters, sometimes it doesn’t. But when you want deep creativity, you won’t find it in an extrovert.
- An introvert is far more likely to give you the whole truth than an extrovert. One of the key strength of an extrovert is handling relationships and ensuring that people don’t feel upset. However, an extrovert will make more compromises on exactly what they will tell you than an introvert. They are more likely to bend to groupthink and tell you what you want to hear.
This is just a sample. But introverts are highly effective knowledge workers when given an opportunity to thrive by being hired, by giving them time to do their work, and by understanding that while introverts occasionally need to check in with their colleagues to share what they’ve been working on, they often do not thrive in environments optimised for more extroverted employees.
To put the points made above to the test, here’s a few quick poll questions. Your poll responses will be anonymised.
IT Professional, Writer and multimedia producer