Thanks to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, and other authors, there’s never been a better time to be among the estimated one-third of people who lean toward introspection and alone time.
Here at Fast Company, we’ve chronicled the high cost of overlooking introverts’ creativity, how best to allow them to be heard, and the finer points of redesigning office space to accommodate their best work, as well as a report on Cain’s collaboration with Steelcase to create spaces that allow for privacy and focused productivity.
If it’s true then that introverts are having a (quiet) moment in the spotlight, is it coming at the expense of extroverts in the workplace?
First, let’s go back to the genesis of these personality types. In Carl Jung’s analysis, extroverts get energized by being around others while introverts charge their batteries in solitude.
This simple definition debunks the myth that introverts are shy and their withdrawal is a result of feelings of inadequacy or depression.
Jung took it a step further and observed that nobody falls into such categories neatly. He said:
There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.
Science subsequently supplemented this theory with evidence that introverts and extroverts process stimuli in different part of their brains.
The fact that everyone operates on a spectrum is at the heart of the collaboration between Steelcase and Cain. The company’s designs are informed by two surveys that dug into workers privacy and well-being. Of the 39,000 North American workers polled in the survey, 95% of workers reported the need for quiet spaces that allow for confidential conversations. Indeed, though there are purportedly more people who lean toward extroversion, nearly all employees surveyed needed private time in a secluded environment.
Cain herself offers: “I felt very strongly that there is a whole emotional range of human experience that is not included in the workplace.”
So while we’re busy debunking the myths of introverts, Cain’s observation points to the fact that their more outspoken colleagues might need quiet time, too. That’s contrary to the prevailing wisdom that the “extrovert ideal” is responsible for every aspect of modern corporate culture from open floor plans to leadership selection.
As an extrovert myself, I have been very grateful for an office with a door, a quiet conference room, and the ability to dispatch calls immediately to voicemail so I could focus on deadline. That said, working in a open space surrounded by people staring at their screens with headphones on (in effort to fabricate barriers where none exist) kind of makes my palms itch.
Social interaction–of the real life relational variety–says science, is a basic human need.
So what are the best ways to coax productivity from an extrovert without having them overwhelm their introverted coworkers? If we are indeed living in an extroverts’ world this should be easily accessible information. Yet, the more I dug for the answers, the more I realized that while plenty of research and management training literature suggests that its content is for the benefit of both types, the preponderance of prose tilts toward the care and feeding of introverts.
That’s fair. Those who don’t feel comfortable speaking up need the proper environment and encouragement to thrive. Extroverts need not fend for themselves, nor does take an office redesign kick their creativity into gear. It does take some understanding as to how to find a balance between the extrovert’s need for social interaction and their need for solitude to get work done.
Brainstorming sessions have been criticized for their polarizing effects on both types of personalities. Leigh Thompson, author of Creative Conspiracy, discussed the “uneven communication problem” that happens when groups of people get together.
The dominant people begin to feel that the silent people are unprepared or simply don’t have any opinions, so they dominate more; similarly, the quiet folks feel that it is futile to try to be heard, so they stop trying.
There are several ways to tackle this, but Baratunde Thurston (extrovert alert: he confesses he loves to talk) suggests that the challenge be delivered to the team prior to the meeting.
Working in solitude beforehand allows a limited pool of ideas to make it to the table, while giving the extroverts time to bring their best instead of just tossing out any idea in order to fill the awkward silence that often prevails when people are put on the spot.
A thoughtful approach to brainstorming may also help minimize labels laid on extroverts. Loudmouth, nerd, know-it-all, and their ilk are often by-products of the extrovert who tends to prattle in effort to keep the conversation flowing.
As for labeling, Sophia Dembling, author of The Introvert’s Way, writes in Psychology Today, “I think that does happen and I don’t like it. It’s wrong.”
Extroverts may enter the workplace armed with charisma and confidence, but they are just as hurt by labels as anyone.
On the other hand, if there is praise, heap it on. Extroverts’ brains are wired differently, with a chronically lower level of arousal that craves stimulation. Anything from novelty to risk heightens the feel-good flood of dopamine, the chemical responsible for the brain’s response to learning and reward.
Not just any form of flattery will do. Though it’s true that extroverts appreciate being praised in a public forum, the person dishing the accolades needs to be mindful that it not be mixed with feedback. It’s also important to stick to what’s in the extrovert’s control.
Telling them they’re rock stars is nice, however Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School recommends focusing on the process. “If being successful means you are “a natural,” then it’s easy to conclude when you’re having a hard time that you just don’t have what it takes,” she says.
If the balance tilts toward more extroverts in the workplace, it’s no wonder that a Gallup survey revealed that recognizing employees and praising them for doing good work was responsible for a 10% to 20% difference in revenue and productivity.