When Lee Dugatkin, Professor of Biology at the University of Louisville, placed guppies in a tank from which they could view predators in another tank, some of the fish swam up to the barricade to observe the predators; he named these “Bold” fish. Others – the “Timid” fish – swam the other direction.
When all the fish were placed directly in the tank with the predators, the Bold fish swam right up to the predators– and were eaten. Their survival rate at 36 hours was roughly half that of the Timid fish, and at 60 hours their survival rate was zero compared to 40% for the timid fish.
Hello, Extrovert Leaders! How are you? I’d love to meet you in person, but I seldom have the chance.
You see, I give talks on how organizations are overlooking and under-utilizing the people who are generally called introverts, whom I call “quietly brilliant.” (The term introvert is fine, even though in our society the label is too often confused with shy or neurotic.)
When I give my talks, the room is generally crowded – sometimes with standing room only – with introverts. I’m grateful for the enthusiasm but sad that I am repeatedly preaching to the choir. Introverts are grateful to have their positive attributes discussed openly, along with ways leaders can help them engage. But they often say the same thing, “The person who needs to be here isn’t. I wish my extrovert supervisor could hear this.”
So I’m asking you: why do you not come? Is it that you think you don’t need to know how to engage with us because there aren’t that many of us in the workplace? Perhaps you don’t realize introverts are over 50% of the population; this would include your employees, staff, and team members.
The topic of introversion has now entered the mainstream. How can I tell? This topic, which I have championed for so many years (full disclosure: I am an introvert), has now appeared in one of my favorite comic strips, and I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
In the Dilbert strip of July 23, an introvert appears and utters all of the stereotypes about introverts being despairing, lonely, and avoidant of conversation. Introversion has become part of the workplace diversity conversation, and that’s a good thing. Picking up on that trend, Dilbert, which satirizes workplace behavior, has now made this contribution, and I know it’s satire; nevertheless, I seem to have lost my sense of humor.
You see, I also know that introverts, no matter how skilled or intelligent, tend to be the last-hired. I know, from studies such as that done by Ones and Dilchert (Industrial & Organizational Psych, 2009), that introverts constitute only 12% of supervisors, and that percentage decreases as you go up the managerial levels, dwindling to a scant 2% at the very top. At the same time, the presence of extreme extroverts rises to 60% at the top.
I hear it over and over again: “I can’t network. I’m an introvert.” “I don’t know what to say.” “I don’t want to brag.” A lot of people don’t like networking, but the bulk of them seem to be introverts.
I’m an introvert, too, and I’m also an entrepreneur, having to teach myself along the way how to reach out and build that body of interested people who support and buy what I do. To make it even harder, I retired in California, moved back to Minneapolis, waited a few years, and then found I wanted to start a business in a city where I had no business contacts and only one friend (a nun).
Business coaches stymied me from the start, because they would start by saying: “First, send a warm letter to all of your friends, telling them what you’re doing and asking for their support.”
Oh. A fellow coach wailed that she only had 100 friends on her Christmas card list, and I was awed by her popularity. This was an exercise at which I never excelled, because my Christmas card list was five.
“I used my extrovert skills.” “I had to learn some extrovert skills.” “Oh, well, I don’t have extrovert skills.” I hear these phrases all the time – and they drive me crazy.
When did the ability to be socially graceful or to display good manners become the sole province of one group of people, one temperament?
Good social behavior is within the reach of every human being, no matter how quiet or even shy you may be. As an introvert, you may need to protect yourself from too much stimulation, but you shouldn’t protect yourself from connecting with others.
The problem, many introverts assure me, is that it takes too much energy to relate to others. Well, anything you don’t know how to do well takes more effort and involves more stress. Swimming, running, public speaking, cooking a Thanksgiving turkey … the list is endless.
When you hire a business coach and develop a program or product, the first marketing instructions you get will probably be something like this: “Contact your friends, send them a warm letter, offer them your services or product, and ask them if they know people who would be interested.” Bingo! You’re on your way with a marketing list, sure to grow as your friends enthusiastically spread the word.
A typical introvert, I have spent my life making a few very deep friendships. Not for me the inclusion in the circle of giggling young women who took coffee breaks and lunch together every day, celebrating life events. When they were discussing a shower for one of their members, I was drinking coffee and reading a book. Their lunchtime group shopping tours were a far cry from my lunchtime exploratory (and solitary) walks.
Maybe you shouldn’t be.
Transitions – in life or in career – are tough. One of the hardest parts is the seeming attack on your identity when you no longer fill a given role, a role you may have played for years, even decades. People who have had to change careers for physical or health reasons, retirees from work to which they have dedicated years of their lives, mothers whose children have grown up and fled the nest, all struggle with this identity crisis.
I know it well: I was a very dedicated ballet dancer when I was young. I lived and breathed ballet: my companions, my choices in food, clothing, entertainment, the décor in my bedroom, all pivoted around my focus on dance.
Then I had to stop. Ballet isn’t something you do forever. But when I did, I had this vast, empty cavern inside of me that I couldn’t seem to fill. If I wasn’t a dancer, how would other people know who I was, relate to me in a way that I felt comfortable? What did I have to be proud of? What would I talk about, and to whom? Would I become invisible? I felt invisible.
The problem was this: I had identified myself as a “dancer.” So if I wasn’t being a dancer, who was I?
After my talks, people often come up to me and say, “I used to be an introvert – but I got over it,” or, “I’m not sure; sometimes I think I’m one thing and sometimes the other. Can you be both?”
Actually, you can be both, changing from one situation to another, or changing over time from one to the other, then sliding back. That’s why I call the introversion-extroversion dimension a sliding scale.
Social psychologists have known for decades that surrounding circumstances can heavily influence personality. Personality tests may claim (or would have you assume) that once you have taken the test and been given a label, you are defined for life. It doesn’t work that way. A personality test cannot necessarily project what you will be in all other situations, past and future.
Over 40% of employees in the workplace have experienced bullying, a persistent pattern of behavior that intimidates, degrades or otherwise undermines the wellbeing of the target. Bullying is four times more prevalent than sexual abuse, and, according to a study at the University of Manitoba, the outcomes for victims of bullying are worse than are those for sexual abuse victims.
So who are the bullies? And who are the targets? It’s easy to envision a quiet, introverted person as the victim of an outgoing, brash person. But it’s not that simple.