Recently, my office took part in a training session that used theatrical improv to help develop business communication skills. Throughout the course of the day, as we performed various verbal exercises in groups, it became clear that some of us relished the chance to have all eyes upon us, while others found it unsettling.
Either way, we all learned something from the session, but it got me thinking about the continuum of introversion and extroversion.
Do Extroverts Have It Right?
Before I became a Business Analyst, I spent several years teaching at colleges and universities. During that time, I never stopped being nervous in front of a class: every class, every week. I loved teaching in spite of this, but I am still not entirely comfortable speaking “off the cuff” in front of an audience.
I admire colleagues and friends who speak persuasively, share ideas in front of others without hesitation, engage in new activities without nervousness, and just generally charm the pants off people. These extroverts appear to get things done more easily and lead others more effectively, in both their personal and work lives.
Is this the full picture, though? Do the extroverts have it right?
Voicing the Introvert
In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain argues that North Americans tend, in fact, to overvalue extroversion. Cain defines extroverts as enjoying greater amounts of stimulation and novelty than their introverted counterparts:
- Extroverts relish meeting new people, while introverts may feel over-stimulated in crowds.
- Extroverts get bored easily, while introverts are more likely to need time and space for quiet reflection.
Cain points out that North Americans, especially in business, tend to value charisma and quick action (typically extroverted characteristics), but may underestimate those individuals who are slow to speak, who need to balance social activities with quiet isolation, and who favour analysis over impulsivity.
In business leadership, Cain argues, introverts possess several advantages:
- They speak calmly.
- They ask questions.
- They make decisions carefully.
Cain’s book makes we wonder, then: should we just stop talking? Is it better to clam up and listen?
Playing to Your Strengths
Cain’s analysis of extroversion and introversion does not always leave enough room for nuance. She tends to focus on the extreme ends of introversion/extroversion rather than considering those who exhibit more moderate characteristics of either, or who may shift along the continuum, depending on the situation.
For example, there are those who require peace and quiet at work when labouring over an important project, but who on other occasions will be motivated and energized by conversations with colleagues.
However, Cain’s argument that we lose something when we undervalue those characteristics associated with introversion (whether one views these characteristics as inherent or situational) is convincing. She points to several studies that show how quiet leaders can be just as effective as more vocal charismatic ones, and stresses the value of listening, observing, and analyzing.
She gives detailed biographies of numerous influential leaders (such as Steve Wozniak, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks) and highlights how these individuals, who may have lacked inescapable charisma or brilliant public speaking abilities, led with a quiet strength, and made space for others to speak too.
Cain’s point is not that introversion is better than extroversion, but that we tend to overvalue the latter at the expense of the former, especially in business. She suggests that, instead, people accept and leverage their own strengths.
- Those who relish meeting new people can choose careers that give them opportunities for this kind of stimulation.
- Those who labour best in isolation can set up their work spaces and routines to meet their own needs.
Neither should have to apologize for their unique inclinations. Cain’s argument here resonates with me: when I stop berating myself for not being more vocal, I am a better observer, a better listener, and a more productive writer.
Faking It: Performing Outside Your Comfort Zone
Cain also argues, though, that we all possess the ability to act outside of our comfort zones when we are doing something that we find meaningful. Thus, an introverted educator can manage a fear of public speaking through experience and practice, and an extroverted scientist can find ways to focus quietly when in her laboratory.
As well, introverts and extroverts can complement each other, bringing their unique skill sets to problem solving and business development when they work together.
So, should you just stop talking?
Not necessarily. Vocalizing one’s ideas is, after all, a key part of leadership. However, as Cain points out in her discussion of Rosa Parks, sometimes leadership also means sitting down so that others may stand.