Several years ago I went to one of those well-known health retreats in Queensland where one goes to detox and rejuvenate. I needed to get away from the daily grind, refresh and renew my energy levels. I spent the first couple of days rising at dawn, participating in a meditative practice, swimming a few laps in the pool, reading and relaxing and appreciating the bountiful smells, sights and sounds of the Queensland hinterland, I looked forward to the healthy food and indulged in a few spa treatments, then hopped into bed early for a deep, untroubled sleep. This quieter, low-key environment was just what I needed after a year of long and stressful working days and unrelenting pressure. Within a couple of days I began to feel energised again, and my sense of vitality and passion for life was returning.
Then came a bolt out of the blue. A well-meaning staff member joined me by the pool a few days into my retreat and asked me in a concerned way if I was enjoying myself. She was an outgoing, expressive, highly energetic individual and it seemed I wasn’t gregarious enough. She misconstrued my peaceful contemplation and ability to enjoy my own company as some kind of unhealthy withdrawal from people, or perhaps a sign of depression. I was gob-smacked. I felt I was being given the message that I was behaving in a rather anti-social fashion and that my quiet and introverted behaviour was seen as a sign of weakness. Needless to say I relieved her concerns and assured her that I was having a ball, in my own, quiet way.
I had completely forgotten this incident until this week, when I listened to a TED Talk by Susan Cain, author of the book, The Power of Introverts. You can view it for yourself here. She recalled having similar expectations at school camp and was confused about the implied messages that her more reserved nature didn’t fit with the high-energy schedule of school camp activities.
According to Susan’s research, between one third and half the population are introverts. This figure may come as a surprise to you – it did to me. That’s because society, schools and the workplace often socialise introverts to behave more like extroverts. Just sit and watch some of the children’s programs on daytime TV, as I do when looking after my 18-month-old granddaughter and you’ll see what I mean. You’re not having fun, many of these programs suggest, unless you are excited, yelling and running around madly.
Our workplaces are often designed more for an extroverted personality and don’t always accommodate introverted preferences, either. With open plan offices and activity-based workplaces, distractions and noises are all around us. Extroverts are outgoing, expressive and are energised by being with others so perhaps they thrive in these environments. Introverts, not so much. It’s not that introverts are necessarily reserved, anti-social or shy. It’s just that they are more reflective and quiet. Introverts feel most alive and capable when they are in a quieter lower key environment, and this is where they operate at their best.
We ignore introverts in workplaces at our loss. The key to maximising talent is to provide an environment that is motivating for everyone. One approach definitely does not suit all. Asking introverts to behave like extroverts (or vice versa) come at a cost – it is hard mentally exhausting to behave in a way that is not authentic, and hard to sustain. It also means the whole team is not performing to its maximum potential.
Here are four good reasons why you should take more notice of introverts.
First, introverts tend to stay with a problem and analyse it for longer. Their contributions are therefore often very thoughtful. They tend to be less driven by the need to dominate discussions. They are good listeners and often ask insightful questions.
Secondly, introverts deliver better outcomes when leading proactive employees because they are more likely to let employees run with ideas, compared to extroverts who can get excited with their own ideas and dominate the conversation. Being the best talker doesn’t mean you have the best ideas.
Thirdly introverted behaviour is especially important when it comes to creativity. Creativity requires solitude and often the best ideas come through quiet contemplation. Scores of studies have shown that when you are in a group of people you tend to be influenced by that group and you start to mimic other people’s opinions rather than generate your own, unique ideas.
Leigh Thomson, in her publication Creative Conspiracy (here’s her TED Talk.) found that individuals working alone will produce more than twice the number of ideas as teams, and that these ideas will be of a higher quality than those identified through team brainstorming.So, solitude matters.
This evidence is telling us that leaders need to be smart about the way they utilise their teams. The best leaders don’t demand constant group work or group brainstorming. Instead, they assemble diverse teams with different perspectives, give team members time to develop ideas on their own and then encourage the group to come together to bring these ideas to maturity.
Finally, some of the most successful leaders in history are introverts. Think of Albert Einstein, Rosa Parkes, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg and Eleanor Roosevelt – why wouldn’t you want one of them on your team?
Don’t misunderstand me, I love extroverts. Although I’m more inclined to be an introvert than an extrovert, I do lie somewhere in the middle and you could say I have the best of both worlds. I love the introverted aspect of solitude for writing and developing ideas. In my coaching practice my introverted nature means I naturally ask insightful questioning and listen effectively. I also enjoy the extroverted part of my personality when working through ideas with others, and when giving presentations to groups. I appreciate my extroverted friends, too. They are great fun to be around. I love their company; they make my day exciting with their enthusiasm and passion for life. I come away from time with my more extroverted friends invigorated by their friendship and with a real zest for life.
However, it’s about time we let the introverts among us shine. You may be amazed to see the magic that begins to happen.
If you would like to talk to Norah about this article, or inquire about how you can achieve greater personal effectiveness email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 0413 274 566.