Let’s be honest, we live in an extrovert’s world. From the classroom through to the workplace, extrovert characteristics are consistently promoted and rewarded. Introversion, on the other hand, is often misunderstood, or treated with suspicion. As a result, many introverts feel under pressure to be more outgoing – more extroverted – in order to fit in. This is particularly true in the workplace.
Thankfully, January 2nd is World Introvert Day – an event designed to help people better understand and appreciate what it means to be an introvert. And being one myself, I jumped at the chance to shed some light on the subject.
So, to help you better understand introversion, as well as some of the issues we face in the workplace, here are a few things you should know.
- We are all different
It goes without saying that no two people are alike. The same applies to introverts and extroverts. It’s best to see this as a spectrum, rather than a black-and-white issue. Some people are more introverted or extroverted than others. It’s even possible to be a little bit of both.
These inherent differences are partly due to the way our brains are wired, and in particular the way we respond to dopamine – a chemical released when we seek external rewards. While both introverts and extroverts produce the same amount of dopamine, introverts are more sensitive to it.
So while higher levels of dopamine can make an extrovert feel good, the same amount could make an introvert feel overwhelmed and anxious. This is why introverts may prefer to spend time alone than in large groups.
- There are loads of us out there
Depending on which source you look at, introverts make up between 25 and 50 per cent of the population. So that’s a pretty big chunk of your workforce. The problem is, the typical workplace doesn’t reflect this.
In fact, most workplaces show an overwhelming bias towards extroversion. You can see this reflected in job ads, where office environments are described as ‘fast-paced’ and ‘dynamic’, and look for people who are ‘outgoing’ and ‘high-energy’. I haven’t seen a single ad looking for someone that is ‘quiet’, ‘inward-focussed’ or ‘introverted’. As a result, many introverts feel the need to put on an extrovert mask in order to fit in at work.
- Not all introverts are shy or unsociable
There seems to be a lot of confusion about what introversion is. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t the same thing as being shy or unsociable – although these things can overlap. In reality, introverts can enjoy socialising just as much as extroverts, but they approach relationships in a slightly different way.
Introverts tend to find big groups exhausting, and have less interest in small talk. Instead, they prefer to get to know people in one-to-one situations, and to discuss things on a deeper level. For this reason, introverts may find it more difficult to make connections in the workplace, where socialising typically happens in large groups, and on a more superficial level.
- We need time alone
Perhaps the key difference between introverts and extroverts is how we get our energy. Introverts need time alone to recharge their batteries and process their thoughts, while extroverts are energised by being around other people. If you’re an introvert, being in a noisy group environment can be mentally draining – even if you enjoy it and get on with the people.
If you work in a team, or in a buzzing office space, your day is filled with interpersonal interactions. Extroverts thrive in such environments, but for an introvert, it can be exhausting.
- We like to listen and observe
Generally, introverts aren’t interested in the limelight. We don’t crave attention, and we tend to speak up only when we have something to say. In a group environment, listening comes more naturally than speaking. This can often work against introverts, who may appear to others as uninterested, distant and aloof.
By its very nature, extrovert behaviour tends to dominate the workplace. Because they are more vocal, managers may assume that extroverts are more enthusiastic about their work, and confident in their abilities. Some mistakenly equate talking a lot with having a lot to say. As a result, extroverts are more likely to be rewarded and recognised than someone who quietly gets on with their work in the background.
- We need time to think
When it comes to generating ideas and making decisions, introverts tend to prefer time to reflect rather than thinking on the spot. This can make group brainstorming sessions or impulse decisions particularly difficult. But this ability to take a step back and reflect on problems can be useful. It allows us to see problems differently, and perhaps spot things that others might miss.
Really, there’s no right or wrong way to approach decision making and the creative process. The key is to understand that people think differently – some love bouncing ideas off others in a fast-paced environment, while others need to go away and process their thoughts quietly. By allowing only one approach, we could be missing out on valuable insights and ideas.
- We really do need peace and quiet
For many people, the lively atmosphere of the open-plan office is what gets them through the day. But this isn’t the case for everyone. Introverts are typically more sensitive to external stimuli, which can make the modern work environment extremely challenging. In order to think clearly, introverts often require peace and quiet.
While it’s impossible to suit everyone’s needs all of the time, employers can play their part by allowing a degree of flexibility. This could mean allowing people to work from home when they need to, or providing a quiet space where they can gain focus.
So why do we need to raise awareness?
Simply because most workplaces are not designed with introverts in mind, and this is clearly an issue. It’s important to understand that we all different, and that’s a good thing. If we force everyone into the same mould, we risk alienating those that don’t naturally fit.
Not everyone thrives in buzzing office environments, brainstorming sessions and group socialising. Some prefer peace and quiet, time to reflect on issues, and one-to-one interactions. But if we only make one approach possible, many people will find work needlessly challenging, and eventually demotivating. Worse still, they may feel that they have to act like someone else in order to be accepted.
Just like extroverts, introverts bring many unique qualities to the workplace. We tend to be thoughtful, observant, diligent and empathic. To make the most of these qualities, we need to create a workplace where everyone is accepted, and where everyone can thrive.