The value of introverts

Whilst I’m pretty sure I’m an introvert myself, the reason for choosing this blog topic has nothing to do with me. I just wanted to use the opportunity to communicate something I’ve come across a lot recently whilst conducting a fairly intense week of telephone interviews.

We all know the value of extroverts, in life in general and more specifically in the world of work. Your classic extroverts are outgoing, good communicators, quick to build relationships, comfortable in groups, not afraid to speak out, and generally just really good fun to be around.

But let me ask you this – which of these two employees do you think is better?

Sam is lively, enthusiastic, and people warm to her instantly.  Sam is loud and everybody knows her. Sam on some level forms a connection with every person she meets, and consequently can be proud of having a huge network. Sam dives straight in to any situation, and is happy to be the first person to offer up her thoughts at every team meeting.

Francis is calm and measured. Not everyone knows Francis because he isn’t one of the louder people in the office. That said, the relationships he builds over time are deep and meaningful, and really valued by all those who know him. Francis is really comfortable at listening to other people’s thoughts, views and opinions before volunteering up his own. Ideally, Francis likes to have some time to reflect on things in his head, thinking them over and being clear on what he means before opening his mouth to share his considered thoughts with the group.

… I would say neither. They’ve both clearly got totally invaluable qualities, and a diverse workforce made up of a combination of many ‘Sam’s and many ‘Francis’s will unarguably be stronger than one made up of all of one or all of the other of them. So, you’d agree therefore that neither is ‘better’? Their strengths are different, but their strengths are equally valuable.

Apparently our culture says otherwise.

I say this, this week in particular, because of the way certain grads have painted the picture of themselves in telephone interviews when asked to discuss their strengths and weaknesses. Introverts are by nature likely to have a clear self-awareness (a very positive quality), so it’s not surprising to have heard them accurately draw on some of the characteristics held by Francis. What’s slightly surprised me, however, is how rarely Francis’s characteristics have been talked about in a positive light. It’s as though these introvert grads have it set in their head that the only type of person a business could possibly be interested in hiring is an extroverted person – a better person. Extrovert, strong. Introvert, weak. Who’s made them think this? The only thing I can think of here is ‘society’.

They’ve told me apologetically how they’re rarely the loudest person in the group, not always great at making snap decisions, are more comfortable in small groups rather than large groups, not always the first to come up with an idea, that they’re uncomfortable at being the centre of attention    – and that these are all things they’re working really hard on to change.

But what about the strengths of those characteristics?  What about the notion that whilst they’re not always the loudest and most outgoing, they are good at ensuring that what they have to say gets said, not immediately but at a moment they deem most appropriate to the situation. Or that they may be quiet, but that’s because they’re natural listeners, very good at absorbing what other people have to say before then offering up a considered solution that achieves the whole team’s goals. Or that whilst they don’t like the spotlight, they’re really good team players, happy to see the glory given to someone else. Or that they may not build relationships instantly, but when they do they are in-depth and highly valued. Or that they’re really capable of working on a project independently, not requiring the stimulation of others to keep themselves motivated. Or that they’re good problem solvers, naturally inclined to consider and draw upon all past knowledge and experiences carefully before coming up with the most workable solutions.

The qualities that extroverts can bring to a business are bountiful and brilliant, and there is definitely so much that introverts can learn from them – but I think it’s important to remember that the reverse is also completely true. There are equally loads of excellent qualities that an introvert brings with them. So before people set out to sell themselves to a business as merely something they assume that business wants them to be, I think it’s important first to consider all the benefits to the characteristics they’ve already naturally got.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as just extroverts and introverts. First off, it’s something of a spectrum rather than being just one way or the other, and secondly, there are so many other dimensions of personality that come in to play. It would just be nice to hear a few more people recognise the positives of their introverted characteristics rather than only those of their more extroverted ones.

And to any introverts who are still concerned they’re at a disadvantage to their extrovert counterparts, I’d say you only have to look as far as President Obama, Meryl Streep or Mark Zuckerberg to notice that, despite what society may or may not have a cultural bias towards, introverts are more than capable of being the top of their field…