Like the world itself, every workplace has a mix of extroverts and introverts – people who are outspoken and vocal and those who don’t speak up, find group activities, impromptu presentations or being in a crowd uncomfortable. Recent research, including the excellent book by Susan Cain on the challenge of being an introvert in a world that values extroversion, has created awareness of an innate anti-introvert bias in our society and workplaces. After all, the very act of “performing” for an interview, attempting to promote oneself and entering the negotiating process does not come naturally to everyone. So, hiring processes tend to skew in favor of extroversion traits like sociability, an outgoing temperament, and the ability to respond vocally on-demand. We see this inherent bias even in college admissions, where right now there are pending legal cases accusing Ivy league universities of anti-Asian bias in admissions. Asian culture values introversion-associated character traits. So, the plaintiffs of such lawsuits, who are raised within that culture, are predisposed to under-perform in such tests of “sociability” and other subjective measures of personality, notwithstanding high academic test scores and grades
The bias goes far beyond college admissions or hiring. Once ensconced in an organization, various aspects of organizational cultural still favor the personality traits of gregariousness and sociability. This is true even if the skills for which you are paid are, by definition, quiet, solitary and inward looking (like software development, writing, research or analysis). Even though no one necessarily expects the head data scientist to be a talkative pack rat, the events and opportunities for engagement within most organizations still skew largely toward those predilections. This isn’t just bias. It’s also because it is truly challenging to devise ways to build cohesion and team without in some way imposing “group-ness” on members of the team. People whose personalities lean toward the introversion side of the spectrum typically do not thrive in or enjoy large groups.
That presents a problem for leaders. We want to find the best people, not just the best extroverted people. And we also want to include everyone in the organization in the culture and create a workplace that cultivates their growth and productivity without leaving whole categories of people feeling discomfited. Moreover, if an organization is to shine, it needs to be able to identify the highest performers and reward then with greater responsibility and opportunity for achievement – and not overlook whole swaths of high-performers who simply fail to speak up enough to be noticed.
There are some structural phenomena that stand out for their anti-introversion qualities. At the most obvious level, open plan offices, team-based work, group-oriented team-building activities, meetings that are driven by impromptu presentations are all examples in which extroverts thrive, whole introverts either muddle through in discomfort, or simply shrink into the background.
Correcting some of these is straightforward: Reducing the imposition of open plan offices is one fix that both introverts and those who need to concentrate for their work would appreciate. This doesn’t have to require an expensive build-out (although it can). Adding some quiet spaces where people can work quietly, away from others who are talking on the phone can be helpful. Modular furniture can accommodate people moving between spaces depending on their activities. Being in a phone booth for calls or in a quiet zone for concentrated work. Workers who (understandable) wear headphones in open plan offices cause their own unintended consequences, creating the appearance of isolation and forcing colleagues to contend with interrupting concentration to get someone’s attention. Wherever possible, it’s better to make the changes at an office-wide level rather than cause the need for that kind of self-preservation tactic.
Because many of my clients are leaders in technology, this issue is a real one that I see regularly. For example, technology teams include lots of engineers, who skew toward being introverts. One of the challenges that I have seen repeatedly is how to include quiet, headphone-donning engineers in the office culture. And as those engineers rise within the organization, particularly in start-ups where the founder may be a developer, they are called upon to provide leadership and to engage in behavior that may not come naturally. Leadership and executive coaching can be very helpful for those leaders and their peers. But there are steps leaders can easily take to make sure that everyone has a fair chance to shine. Here are some ideas:
- Instead of having “parties” be the sole form of organizational social events, create some opportunities that cater to one-on-one interactions, like coffee break areas where people can take breaks and chat in groups of two or three.
- Company-sponsored interest groups allow people with like hobbies or pastimes to get together while doing something they like. These can include anything from book groups to wine tastings, running challenges or puzzle-solving.
- Try to avoid meetings that do not give introverts adequate time to prepare both for the meeting itself and their role in it. By providing an agenda in advance and asking people to prepare their presentations to meet specific guidelines for time and structure, you provide a roadmap that allows those who dislike impromptu speaking to feel ready.
- If you use virtual meeting technology, use available metrics (Zoom video chat has a reporting tool that does this for example) to track who does the most talking. If some people are frequently silent or monosyllabic participants, consider beginning to structure the meetings so that everyone is expected to speak and told beforehand how you will include them. Again, many introverts like a chance to prepare remarks so that they allay anxiety and have the confidence to contribute.
I’d love to hear your strategies for including all personality types in your organization. Please let me know in the comments!