Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

How to be a Successful Introvert AND Stay True to Yourself

successful_introvert

I’m a bit of a navel-gazer, and a bit of a people watcher.

Hours alone with the computer, writing: brilliant. And if I can do that in a coffee shop, where occasionally I can surface and spend some time making up stories about the people around me, even better.

I think it stems from studying philosophy and psychology – and then taking it to extremes by going on to be a professional psychologist, specialising in people in the workplace.

I love understanding people – their twisty thinking, the whys and wherefores of their behaviour – and predicting what they might do in the future (but no, psychologists are not mind readers!).

On trend: Introversion

Watching introversion become ‘fashionable’ in the last couple of years has been great for me in a couple of ways.

As a psychologist who helps individuals understand their own and others’ personality, anything that sheds a little light on what makes us tick for the ‘woman on the street’ makes my job easier.

And as an introvert, it’s reminded me to keep reflecting on what makes me tick, and how I can make my introversion work for me rather than against me.

What’s all the fuss about?

So what is personality anyway? There are a few definitions out there, but I see it as a core and stable part of the deepest nature of our being: something that is both part of our nature (we are born with some genetic predisposition to be a certain way), and nurture (our parents and our early environment also shape our personality).

Personality then can be thought of as our ‘preferred style or way of being’, and influences our behaviour in the workplace and at home.

For example, my own introversion means I’m more likely to behave in a certain way – because I get tired when  I spend long periods of time with other people, I tend to avoid big social scenes. So, my personality influences my behaviour:  they are connected but still two different things.

Critically, this is the thing that enables us to change our behaviour, without the core personality trait changing.

Psychologists generally agree that there are five ‘core’ factors of personality.  The most well-known is probably Introversion-Extroversion, and the most famous introvert of the moment is Susan Cain, who has had huge success with her book: Quiet.

But what’s an introvert?

First characterised by Jung, typically an introvert gets their energy from their internal, rather than the external, world and thus, as in my own example above, is likely to prefer more limited engagement with large groups.  An extrovert on the other hand, is likely to feel more ‘buzzed’ by interactions with others – the bigger the group the better.

The introvert-extrovert workplace battle

Whilst introverts are popularly seen as misanthropic loners, and extroverts are seen as the life and soul of the party, in fact, both ends of the extrovert-introvert continuum have pros and cons.

But Cain’s argument is that in the modern Western world, extroverts are winning the workplace battle.  She suggests that despite the fact that between a third and a half of us are introverted, our office spaces are set up to play to the strengths of extroverts.  The typical open-plan office space is favoured by companies (more people in less space = cheaper building costs), but is more suited to extroverts comfortable with higher levels of noise and stimulation than introverts – who are more likely to prefer a closed space with a few people, where they can shut the door.

Similarly, the ‘unstructured’ interview, still a very popular recruitment technique despite its limitations, can be aced by someone who is particularly assertive or comfortable meeting new people.  Often an extrovert appears more confident in an interview situation, as they are likely to enjoy improvising answers on the spot, whereas an introvert may like to spend more time ‘off-line’ considering answers.

Balancing the extrovert-introvert scales

As the title implies, Cain’s book proposes we harness the ‘power of Quiet’.  This doesn’t mean chucking extroverts on the bonfire (!), but it does mean ensuring that we start to really think about creating space for both introverts and extroverts.

Meetings, for example, are activities that are much more suited to extroverts than introverts. Introverts are likely to have rich inner landscapes, and enjoy thinking deeply about complex problems, so are unlikely to find meetings somewhere they do great work.  Meetings where topics are brainstormed with no warning are likely to demotivate introverts, who tend to prefer to do their thinking alone and over time.

How to be a successful introvert

Of course we can all act out of character, and develop our ‘other side’.  This is likely to be most successful, Cain argues, if we are acting out of character in the service of a personal project that taps deeply into our values or needs.

This extrovert persona can help you to get through the day, but to ensure success when you are acting contrary to your typical style, ensure you have what she calls ‘restorative niches’ in your life.  These are places (mental or physical) that you can go when you want to return to your ‘true self’ – perhaps a walk alone in the park, or simply a break between meetings in a quiet room on your own.

I found this out in my own life by accident, when working as a busy and active consultant, spending much of my time with my team members or with clients.  Running training one day, a team meeting the next, giving a client presentation the day after, I had unknowingly created my own restorative niche by living on my own.

I had lived with others in my early twenties, but realised I struggled to be perky when I came home from work. Living on my own meant I was able to ensure I had enough ‘alone time’ to restore me after time in my extroverted work environment, and could then control the way I spent time with others to be a better friend.

When choosing jobs, we should also consider whether the role has enough opportunity for these restorative niches.  If we are able to act ‘true’ to our personality, we may need fewer of these – for example, as an introvert if there is the possibility of working at home, or in a private office space – and if not, then we should ensure that the job role and components can be adapted to include these.  Be creative here – for example, I use travel time as a ‘restorative niche’, and try and travel on my own wherever possible.

The marginalised extrovert

Don’t think I’m discriminating against extroverts in this post – some of my best friends are extroverts ;-).

Extroverts need to ‘fit’ into an environment just as much as introverts. Consider, if you as an extrovert apply for a new job role, are there enough opportunities for you to act true to yourself?  Perhaps a role in a satellite office with only two or three people might not suit an extrovert, or a role where someone is likely to be on the road most of the time alone.

Extroverts, as much as introverts, need to find a job and a culture where their personality preferences fit, and where this isn’t the case, to ensure they have ‘restorative niches’ to balance time when they have to act out of character with their personality.

The reason for Cain’s book, however, is that in Western society the scales are currently tipped in favour of the extrovert, so it tends to be the introvert who suffers – not least because their natural style is to be ‘Quiet’ about the problem.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

Let me know in the comments below how you manage those aspects of your job or your life where you have to play the other role… where are you most or least successful?

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25 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Ash September 2, 2014, 9:20 pm

    I’ve finally got my hands on Susan Cain’s book, ‘Quiet’, and I thoroughly enjoy reading it. However, I had a job interview last week, and I happened to refer to myself as an introvert, and did not go down well! Which is strange as the interviewer admitted that most people in the office are ‘quiter’ types, and they show preference towards those personalities. When the agent contacted me later, she said they both thought I came across as a confident person – until I said I was an introvert (which they apparently interpreted that I don’t have confidence in my abilities)! I’m very confused by these remarks, even more so because they asked me back for a second interview… It makes me wonder if the word ‘introvert’ has a negative connotation with some, especially when it comes to hiring?

    • Ellen September 3, 2014, 6:26 am

      Hi Ash – glad you enjoyed Quiet, and yes, I also got a lot out of it.

      I think that you’re right, some people do have negative connotations with the word introvert (which aren’t at all backed by science). As an assessment psychologist it doesn’t sound like it was a very ‘best practice’ interview! I think if I was you, I would avoid use of the word, and be more specific. For example, ‘I like to work on my own sometimes, and I’m confident presenting to others’, or ‘I’m happy to talk about my work.’ Drill down to the bits that are more relevant so they don’t put their own interpretation on the word.

      Good luck!

  • Melissa Weir September 3, 2014, 1:04 am

    Hi Ellen. Interesting piece, and I think you’re right that introversion has become more fashionable. Or is it becoming more popular because it is more accepted?

    I ride the line between being an extrovert and an introvert. Myers-Briggs early in my career said I was an extrovert (but just barely), but more recently I’m more of an introvert. I was thinking of why this is so, and honestly I believe it is because “back in the day” being an introvert was considered an “area for improvement.” And that wasn’t that long ago! I really haven’t changed, I’ve just let my natural introversion shine the last five years because I am old and care less about outside perspectives — especially when I disagree with them.

    I’m an introvert, and darn proud of it. I no longer make up excuses when I RSVP with a polite “no thanks” to a large social gathering. When people ask me if I’m daydreaming, I say, “no, just thinking.” I don’t make up excuses for spending hours in a bookstore anymore, either.

    Occasionally I’ll let the extrovert out, when it suits my needs. I’m fine with working the crowd when I have to — as long as I can take a long nap afterward, followed by a quiet weekend with a big pile of reading material :)

    Thanks for the perspective and the encouragement to be who we need to be.

    • Ellen September 3, 2014, 6:28 am

      Hi Melissa,

      I think you make a really important point here, which is that because personality is normally distributed, MOST PEOPLE fall in the middle. So there actually aren’t that many people who are completely extrovert, or completely introvert. That’s one of the reasons I’m not such a fan of type questionnaires, as they put people in boxes.

      PS- Surely no one EVER needs an excuse for spending hours in a bookstore?!! ;-)

  • Neil September 3, 2014, 3:22 am

    Great post Ellen! I love the way you describe personality as who we are at the depths of our being.

    I too am about as far over as you can get on the introvert side of Jung’s scale. I manage being with a lot of people by fleeing when it becomes too much. Then I shower and retreat to my bed to journal and read.

    Congrats on the new website. I look forward to reading more of your work.

    • Ellen September 3, 2014, 6:29 am

      Thanks for the comment Neil. Personality is a definite area of fascination for me – it’s a part of what I’ve spent most time on as a work psychologist.

      I love that you shower after being around people, ha! Maybe I’ll try that… :-)

  • Neena September 5, 2014, 7:37 pm

    Hi Ellen,
    I am firmly on the introvert side myself.

    It is somewhat of a misconception that introverts are all shy loners.

    In fact the key difference is how people re-energize. Like you, I find a busy social situation to be draining. I enjoy attending, but I need some quiet “me-time” afterwards. It also takes me some time to assess the situation and warm up before I feel fully comfortable.

    But I am far from a quiet little mouse. Ask my kids.

    Nice post!
    Neena recently posted…Evernote for School – Step by StepMy Profile

    • Ellen September 6, 2014, 5:25 am

      Yes, definitely, there are a lot of misconceptions about introverts out there. Thanks for commenting!

  • Max Arthur October 6, 2014, 7:17 pm

    How about ambiverts? I believe I’m an ambivert.
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    • Ellen October 6, 2014, 8:30 pm

      An interesting question Max. Contemporary personality theory focuses more on personality traits rather than personality types; as I mention above, I’d also see introversion-extroversion as a continuum, which means that, as personality (like most things) follows a normal distribution, then most people fall in the middle, with no particularly strong preference to either side.

      I think this is why/where the ‘ambivert’ term comes from: the fact that type psychology puts people into two boxes, introvert or extrovert, and doesn’t leave room for the mass in the middle – which is in reality where most people fall. So type psychology needs a term to effectively create another ‘box’ (type).

      If you consider personality in terms of traits, you don’t have this issue – because you can say that most people are neither especially introverted or especially extroverted, and can balance between the two, or, in certain situations they are likely to be more of an extrovert, and in others, more of an introvert.

      So, no need for the term ambivert! And if you feel you are, then that’s completely legitimate and very likely true. I wouldn’t use that word for it myself, but if you like it, feel free ;-)

  • Khadia December 30, 2014, 9:52 am

    I’m an introvert – INFJ. Great post…. it can be hard being an introverted girl in an extroverted world!

    • Ellen December 30, 2014, 10:32 am

      Thanks Khadia :-) I hope the post gave you a few more suggestions on how to do it! Wishing you a thriving introverted year ahead!

  • Bell of Peace May 4, 2015, 2:04 am

    The way you write is such flowing. Keep writing. http://www.bellofpeace.org

    • Ellen May 9, 2015, 9:03 am

      Thanks for the lovely compliment :-)

  • Joshcorn October 26, 2015, 4:29 pm

    This post is so amazing! Being a intrevort myself i always run into people asking whats wrong? and are you okay? like there’s something wrong with working on my own and sometimes hanging out on my own! i guess that’s just good friends! But after reading this post maybe it could open up their eyes on how i actually am!Jake recently posted..

    • Ellen April 26, 2016, 4:16 am

      Yep, there’s definitely nothing wrong with you! I love those things too :-) Definitely worth getting extroverted friends to read Quiet also!

  • Debbie L Hampton April 25, 2016, 3:20 pm

    You’ve piqued my interest with this post. I want to read Cain’s book. I consider myself a “social introvert” and like the idea of changing behaviors without changing traits.
    Debbie L Hampton recently posted…Depression Is A Symptom, Not The DiseaseMy Profile

    • Ellen April 26, 2016, 4:17 am

      It’s a great book, very readable, and with good research and science behind it. I recommend it!

  • Vidya Sury April 25, 2016, 5:55 pm

    I love the way you described being a successful introvert, Ellen. I cannot answer confidently if someone were to ask me whether I considered myself an introvert or extrovert. I think it depends on the situation and mood. Sometimes I am the life and soul of the party, sometimes I just don’t want to mingle. I would like to read “Quiet”. (P.S.: Keep meaning to tell you – love your writing style!)
    Vidya Sury recently posted…Tribute to a Legend #PrinceMy Profile

    • Ellen April 26, 2016, 4:19 am

      I think that’s also completely normal. In fact, extroversion-introversion is a continuum, not a dichotomous trait – people are not all in one box or the other, they are along a normally distributed scale, with most people (just like shoe size or height) in the middle. That might mean you’re flexible, or it might mean that certain situations bring out the extrovert or introvert in you. Just like all these things, it’s all about knowing yourself and being able to make choices about your behaviour.

      And thanks very much for the lovely compliment!

  • Suzie Cheel April 26, 2016, 12:02 am

    As an extrovert generally especially online and usually at events I do also understand at times I can be an introvert. I also understand the power of quiet Thanks for sharing the book
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    • Ellen April 26, 2016, 4:20 am

      Sounds like you also have more of a middle trait Suzie – very useful to be able to draw on both ends!

  • Sandra Pawula April 26, 2016, 6:45 am

    I’m an introvert. The idea of an open office plan sends shudders up my spine! I can do well with people individually or in small groups and not for too long. Love this idea of “restorative niches.” I haven’t heard that one before!
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  • Elle April 27, 2016, 6:08 pm

    ‘Restorative niches’ are fundamental to my well being Ellen. Love that phrase.

    As for introvert or extrovert…it all depends. I have a fundamental shyness that has been with me ever since I can remember and today, at this time of my life, everything totally depends on how I’m feeling in the moment as to whether I show up as one or the other, or a combination of both.

    It’s an interesting topic – and here’s another book to be added to my wish list!
    Elle recently posted…8 Ways To Be Less LonelyMy Profile

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