Introversion: The benefit of quiet employees

Discover how to get the most from your introverts and quiet employees.

Written by Emerald Works
Published 14 August 2020
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Introversion: The benefit of quiet employees
Introverts tend to think before speaking, explore subjects in depth and energise themselves through quiet reflection. Yet these traits do not always blend well with modern work practices like open plan offices and teamwork.

Studies have shown that introverts frequently struggle to advance their careers because an outgoing extrovert has been promoted instead. This article will explore the positive attributes that an introvert can bring to a team, department or the wider organisation and the benefits of supporting their development.

What is ‘an introvert’?


The term ‘introvert’ was first coined by psychologist Carl Jung in 1921, when he published his landmark text Psychological Types. [1] Jung argued that where an extrovert has an intense interest in the objective world around them, an introvert is more likely to be concerned with the subjective world of thoughts and ideas. In practice, he admitted that few people could really be considered fully extrovert or introvert, but in fact share aspects of both these types.
 
“There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.” [2]
 
Nearly a century later, these academic terms have become a part of popular culture. Most people would agree that an ‘extrovert’ is someone who is ‘outgoing’, while an ‘introvert’ would be just the opposite. [3] Yet a common misconception is that introverts are ‘shy’. Some are, of course, but many just prefer to avoid social situations like parties and team meetings because the experience leaves them drained. [4] 

The science behind introversion


Various studies have explored the science behind introversion, but the difficulty in isolating this one aspect of behaviour has resulted in some conclusions being oversimplified. [5] There is, however, a general consensus that introversion is due, in part, to the physiology of the brain.
 
In 1989, Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan began a study into the way children react to different stimuli. He discovered that those who reacted strongly tended to have over-active amygdalae, the part of the brain which triggers the adrenal response to danger. Yet they also tended to act as introverts later in life, suggesting that extreme introverts retreat from the external world because they are quickly overwhelmed by their environment. [6]
 
In another study, extroverts were found to experience higher levels of pleasure than introverts when rewarded. This suggested that introverts demonstrate less of a 'go-getter' attitude because they are less affected by material rewards. [7]

Why introverts are overlooked at work


The number of introverts among Western populations is thought to be as high as 50% and even higher in Eastern cultures [8]. But, in management, the percentage of introverts drops sharply. One study, by psychologists Stephan Dilchert and Deniz Ones, suggested that the number of US leaders who operate as extroverts could be as high as 96%. [9]
 
This is likely to be due in part to a tendency among introverts to be less ambitious. But other reasons include the widespread belief that:
  • Introversion is a barrier to leadership [10]
  • Teamwork, a practice better suited to extroverts, is a key to success [11]
  • The ideal leader is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight - what author Susan Cain calls the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ [8]

Is it possible that this cultural bias is a mistake?

What introverts bring to work


Recent research by Professor Adam Grant and his colleagues Francesca Gino and David Hofmann now suggests that this ‘Extrovert Ideal’ might not be the most effective indicator of an individual’s suitability to work. In fact, the trio found that the most effective teams were those which combined the positive traits of both introverts and extroverts to achieve their goals. So, what can introverts bring to your organisation?

In general, introverts tend to: [12]
  • Work better alone. This makes them well suited to technical tasks or roles which require long periods of concentration. They also tend to be more productive than extroverts when working from home or travelling and are less likely to become distracted during busy periods.
  • Explore subjects in depth. This gives introverts a better understanding of complex topics than extroverts.
  • Listen to other people’s ideas. This helps them assess possible options before coming to a decision.
  • Think creatively. This is because introverts spend more time on reflection and process information internally, rather than talking through problems. Author Susan Cain points out that this is why many writers and artists are introverts.
  • Communicate better through writing. This gives them time to formulate an argument and think about how they want to present it.
  • Form close relationships with a handful of people. This can be a huge benefit on a tight-knit team, although introverts tend to have little interest in small talk with acquaintances.
  • Empathise with how others are feeling. This can make them less brash than extroverts and helps them appreciate boundaries.
  • Exude calm. This is important during times of crisis, even though introverts sometimes find it difficult to appear excited.
  • Be cautious. This helps them make better decisions in situations where the odds are against them. Extroverts, on the other hand, are far more motivated by reward.
  • Be content with their situation. This makes introverts less likely to seek advancement with another organisation because they are less motivated by ambition than extroverts.

Conclusion


While introverts, by their very nature, tend to be less forthcoming at work than more extroverted employees, they nonetheless have many valuable qualities to offer. The challenge for a manager or leader, then, is to identify the skills and attributes an introvert can bring to the table, and how these can be utilised.
 
The most effective team is likely to be one which makes the most of both introvert and extrovert personality types, and which could be led by either. Instead of basing decisions on the ‘Extrovert Ideal’, consider the benefits of a quiet employee and you might identify a successful leader of the future.


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References

[1] C G Jung, 'Psychological Types' at: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Jung/types.htm (accessed 26 Feb 2013).
[2] Richard I Evans, Jung on Elementary Psychology: A Discussion between C G Jung and Richard I Evans (Routledge & Kagan Paul Ltd, 1979) pp 192.
[3] Kelley L Ross, Ph.D., 'Psychological Types (after C.G. Jung & the Briggs-Myers Typology)’ at http://www.friesian.com/types.htm (accessed 26 Feb 2013).
[4] Psychology Today, 'All About Introversion' at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/introversion (accessed 26 Feb 2013).
[5] Elaine N Aron, PhD, Time Magazine, ‘The Power of (Shyness) and High Sensitivity' at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/attending-the-undervalued-self/201202/time-magazine-the-power-shyness-and-high-sensitivity (accessed 26 Feb 2013).
[6] Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Penguin, 2013) pp 99-108.
[7] Cohen M X, Young J, Baek J M, Kessler C, Ranganath C, ‘Individual differences in extraversion and dopamine genetics predict neural reward responses’ at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16289773 (accessed 26 Feb 2013).
[8] Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Penguin, 2013) pp 3-4, 181-202.
[9] A Grant, F Gino, and D A Hofmann, ‘Stop Stealing the Spotlight: The Perils of Extraverted Leadership', at: https://mgmt.wharton.upenn.edu/files/?whdmsaction=public:main.file&fileID=5566 (accessed 26 February 2013).
[10] A Grant, F Gino, and D A Hofmann, ‘Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity', at: https://mgmt.wharton.upenn.edu/files/?whdmsaction=public:main.file&fileID=4164 (accessed 26 February 2013).
[11] F P Morgeson, D S DeRue, and E P Karam, ‘Leadership in Teams: A Functional Approach to Understanding Leadership Structures and Processes’, at: https://www.msu.edu/~morgeson/morgeson_derue_karam_2010.pdf (accessed 26 February 2013).
[12] Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Penguin, 2013) and Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, ‘There’s More to Introversion than you Might Think’ in Psychology Today at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201108/there-s-more-introversion-you-might-think (16 August, 2011)

About the author

Emerald Works

Emerald Works

At Emerald Works, we’re committed to helping individuals and organizations around the world realize their full potential by using evidence-led learning solutions that work.

We work together to build learning cultures that empower people to bring about real change for real impact.

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