“Sensitive fake extrovert.” That’s how Jade Lenier classifies herself. As a performer and public speaker, you’d take her for an extrovert, but in truth, says Lenier, “my extroverted outsides don’t match my introverted insides. Because I do love being around people, but I become overstimulated and overwhelmed by them and must retreat to my own corner of the world.”
Is Lenier really just an introvert in the wrong career? Not exactly, says Harvard Business School behavioral scientist and author of Sidetracked Francesca Gino. In fact, Lenier is no outlier. “Personality traits, like introversion and extroversion, exist along a continuum,” Gino explains. “In fact, many people fall somewhere in between when it comes to this very personality trait.”
While this gray area is popularly known as “ambiversion,” the fact that so many of us aren’t clear-cut introverts or extroverts begs two important questions: Why are we still clinging to this black-and-white classification in the first place? And are there any downsides to doing so?
The Trap Of “Either/Or”
According to Gino, the extrovert/introvert dichotomy “traps us in stereotypes that affect how we interact with others. When you self-identify with one personality type, you’re at risk of ignoring behaviors you’re engaging in or needs you may have.”
More problematic still is that many of us have inexact ideas about what it actually means to be extroverted. Extroverts aren’t necessarily people who are loud, outgoing, and the life of the party. “This personality trait is more about where we get energy from,” Gino clarifies. “Introverts get exhausted by social interaction and need solitude to recharge. Extroverts get anxious when left alone and get energy from social interaction.”
So if you think you’re an extrovert because you’re a good public speaker, you’re not necessarily wrong–it’s just being a great speaker isn’t proof that you’re an extrovert. But if you leave every speaking engagement feeling exhausted and find you need to spend time alone to recharge, chances are you’re closer to the introvert side of the spectrum than you imagine. And by performing the extroverted identity you’ve assigned yourself–for instance, by going out for drinks with half a dozen friends after your big talk–you’ll just wind up being a very exhausted introvert.
Not surprisingly, people’s social networks tend to be full of extroverts. In a 2015 Dartmouth study, researchers found not only that extroverts have more friends on average than introverts, but also that “the more similar are two people’s levels of extroversion, the more likely they are to become friends.” This leads to a “systematic network extroversion bias,” where people’s social networks are overpopulated with extroverts, and therefore under-populated by introverts relative to the general population.
At work, those who lean more introverted may feel disadvantaged when their networks are crawling with extroverts all connecting to each other. But extroverts, less likely to be exposed to introverted peers, are disadvantaged, too–missing out on great collaborators who have different strengths and talents than they do. In other words, while many of us fall somewhere in the middle, those two poles tend to draw us further apart–even though we’d probably be more creative and productive working with a more diverse range of personality types.
So what can be done about it? There are a few ways to embrace your ambiversion in an introvert/extrovert world.
Manage Your Weak Spots, Play To Your Strengths
For starters, says Gino, just “knowing your type when it comes to personality is important, because by increasing our awareness of where we stand in terms of introversion and extroversion, we can develop a better sense of our tendencies, manage our weak spots, and play to our strengths.” If someone knows they skew more extroverted, for instance, they can become more aware of their tendency to dominate conversations, and work to give others the floor more often–especially as leaders.
Maresa Friedman, founder of the Executive Cat Herder, a strategy firm, has learned to do this herself. Like Lenier, she’s usually mistaken for a clear extrovert despite often being “happier at home with a book, not talking to anyone.” Sometime in her twenties, Friedman started noticing her more introverted coworkers getting passed over for promotions and opportunities “because dominant voices that were constantly heard were from the extroverted people.” So she figured she could be strategic about it.
“I began taking notes of things my peers and supervisors did that got them promoted,” Friedman recalls, and before long she wound up with a list crammed full of extroverted attributes. She decided simply to imitate them–and it worked. “I started adapting some of my behavior accordingly and, surprisingly, watched as my career took off.”
In retrospect, Friedman realizes she was doing what Gino suggests: “I consider the ‘extrovert’ behavior I have had to adapt for business to directly correlate to sales and revenue growth,” Friedman explains. “I consider my ‘introvert’ behavior, like reading, listening to world music, et cetera, to be the basis of my sanity.” She’s an effective ambivert because she knows when to lean into her strengths on one side of the continuum (and when not to) and how to fill in the gaps on the other.
The Art Of Strategic Ambiversion
In 2011, Gino published research she conducted with Wharton Business School’s Adam Grant and Dave Hofmann of UNC that found that “introverts can actually be better leaders than extroverts,” Gino explains, particularly when their employees willingly share input and ideas. What’s more, extroverted leaders can struggle to manage other extroverts because they may be less likely to embrace those who take initiative and make their voices heard. Introverts, on the other hand are “more likely to listen to, process, and implement the ideas of an eager team,” says Gino.
Leaders can use this information to adapt their style to the type of group they’re leading. “With proactive employees, leaders need to be receptive to the team’s ideas; with a more passive team, leaders need to act more demonstratively and set a clear direction,” says Gino. In other words, the ability to adapt–similar to the strategic ambiversion that Friedman practiced–is the real key.
When you realize that Bob isn’t speaking up in the meeting because he’s introverted in situations like this, not because he’s devoid of ideas, you can help him find other ways to contribute. Maybe that means talking to him one-on-one before the meeting, or giving him time to digest the information before sending a follow-up email with his input.
Knowing how to adapt your behavior in the workplace first requires knowing where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, though–and recognizing that it is a spectrum in the first place.