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?