The introverts who walk the walk, but have no time for talk


What do the theory of evolution, Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the Mona Lisa, Harry Potter and Apple computers have in common? They are all the work of an introvert who spent thousands of hours alone honing their work to perfection. Some of the world’s most famous introverts include Bill Gates, Google founder Larry Page, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Anthony Hopkins and Steven Spielberg.

Where you fall on the introvert/ extrovert scale has an impact on pretty much every aspect of your life including, the partner you choose, the friends you meet and your career.

Extroverts get their energy from the outside world and love interacting with people. They are more likely to have a wide circle of friends, to place big bets on the stock market, to be hospitalised with an injury, to exercise and have affairs.

Introverts get energy from solitude and feel drained by too much socialising. It is not the same as shyness: introverts just prefer situations that aren’t overly stimulating. They like more “down time”, have a greater need for privacy and are less outspoken in groups.

The two personality types even arrange their work spaces differently. An extrovert is more likely to decorate their office and leave the door open to lure co-workers in for a chat, while introverts tend to keep their door closed to ward off interruptions.

Susan Cain, author of the bestselling book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, says we miss out when we ignore the strengths of introverts. “Some of our greatest ideas, art and inventions . . . came from quiet, cerebral people who knew how to tune into their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there.”

She describes growing up as a soft-spoken child in the US (the most extroverted country in the world) and being pushed to socialise on an endless round of play dates and boisterous summer camps. As she grew older, she noticed that parents often apologise for shyness in their child and that the volume of a person’s voice is sometimes more important than the quality of their work at the office. She came to the conclusion that introversion is a second-class personality trait in the West.

“Extroversion is a hugely appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform. If you’re not an introvert yourself, you are surely raising, managing, married to, or coupled with one.”

Most workplaces and schools are more suited to the needs of extroverts. “Classroom desks are increasingly arranged in pods to foster group learning,” says Cain. Research shows the majority of teachers believe the ideal student is an extrovert, but in fact introversion is linked to intelligence.

The US Gifted Development Center found 75 per cent of children with IQs above 160 are introverts. Although they are more natural students, quiet children are at a disadvantage where there is a lot of emphasis on classroom participation and group work in school.

David Keane is a corporate psychologist with Davitt Corporate Partners. He says Irish businesses should be aware of the strengths of extroverts and introverts when selecting employees, because a bad hiring decision can cost a company three times the person’s annual salary. Introverts have a more difficult time selling themselves in a traditional interview as self-promotion does not come as naturally to them.

“The nature of an interview is more suited to an extrovert because you have to talk about yourself and think on your feet,” says Keane. “But if you throw in something practical like a presentation where an introvert really gets time to put their thoughts down on paper, it levels the playing field.”

In the business world, there is also an assumption that extroverts make the best managers. Amber Hanna, also a corporate psychologist with Davitt Corporate Partners, says a quieter style of leadership is coming into fashion. “In the past number of years that kind of alpha, charismatic leadership hasn’t worked: just take a look at what happened on Wall Street. People are now more willing to accept that people who listen, get a consensus and make more logical, thought-out decisions probably make better leaders.”

Even office design can have a big impact on how productive introverts and extroverts are in the workplace. The funkily decorated, open-plan offices ushered in to Ireland by multinationals are more suited to extroverts.

“Plenty of introverts do really well in open-plan offices, but they probably go home at the end of the day exhausted from hearing so many voices and having so much interaction all the time,” says Amber Hanna. “So if an open-plan office has breakout rooms or quiet rooms, you are more likely to find introverts going off in there to work”.

Introverts are happiest when they can work in nooks and crannies and if a company has a lot of introverts on their team, it makes economic sense to give them their own workspace. A study by consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared 500 computer programmers (an occupation stuffed with introverts) at 92 different companies. The main factor separating the most successful companies from the least successful was that they gave more privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption to their programmers.

If job specs are anything to go by, being an outgoing “team player” is one of the most important attributes a job seeker can have today. But is team work really all it is cracked up to be? Team work can actually hamper innovation and lead to group-think, where people toe the line even if they don’t agree with the group’s decision. If a company is seeking creativity and visionary ideas from their workforce, they would do better to advertise for an introvert, because introversion is strongly linked to creativity.

Steve Wozniak, the engineering genius who designed the first Apple computer (but was overshadowed by the more charismatic and extroverted Steve Jobs) has little time for teamwork and has this advice for introverts who find they don’t quite fit into today’s corporate environment: “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me – they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists . . . and artists work best alone. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee. Not on a committee. Not on a team. Work alone.”

Are you an introvert or extrovert? Answer yes or no

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 enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter to me

6. People tell me that 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 or mellow

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

12. I dislike conflict

13. I do my best work alone

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 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 concentrate easily

20. In classrooms, I prefer lectures to seminars

This is an informal, nonscientific test from Susan Cain’s book about the characteristics of introversion. The more often you answered yes the more introverted your nature, more no answers indicates a more extroverted personality.

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