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By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University
There was once a natural assumption that introverts are not a good fit for leadership roles. However, recent thinking suggests there are situations when the introvert might be the best hire for a position. Similarly, you may need introverts to participate in the decision-making process because their viewpoints complement designated leaders, who tend to be extroverts.
Writing in HR Today, Susan RoAne says, “In the workplace, behavior tends to be the determining factor as to whether someone is deemed an introvert or extrovert, which can be a mistake. The conversant, energetic, talkative storyteller who enjoys center stage is assumed to be an extrovert, which isn’t necessarily true if this outgoing person needs to be alone to get re-energized.”
Categorizing People as Introverts or Extroverts Leads to Misperceptions
We have inaccurately categorized people based on how they engage with others. The definitions of introvert and extrovert, as explained by Carl Jung, deal with how a person works to get the task completed. “If a person replenishes his energy by group activity, he is an extrovert. If a person needs to be alone and quiet to re-energize, then he is an introvert,” RoAne explains.
For example, I once witnessed how a senior HR leader attempted to share information with her CEO on establishing guidelines for a particular solution. Although she shared some typical characteristics of an extrovert, I would consider her an introvert. On the other hand, the CEO was an introvert, wanting his senior leaders to be the extroverts.
The HR leader’s work style was to present the information, then wait for a response that would be the solution to the problem. She believed that if she did the research and gave her CEO all the facts, he should have been able to make a quick decision based on the shared information.
Unfortunately, the HR executive did not take into consideration how her CEO processed information. He preferred to listen, take time to think over what he heard and then comment. She missed the fact that he needed time to process the information in his head.
Therefore, every time there was a pause while he was processing the data, she would become frustrated that he did not have an immediate response. In her mind, she was very thorough in providing the necessary details.
So when there was “quiet time,” she felt the need to provide additional information that she thought would help to clarify things for him. Their meetings were frustrating for both of them, and nothing was ever accomplished because they did not understand each other’s style.
Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is often cited as a positive guide for introverts to understand their strengths, preferences and, most importantly, their value in the workplace. A side benefit to the book is that it explores how to include, identify, manage, and engage introverts and extroverts.
Here are some basic traits Cain lists that are often associated with extroverted and introverted work styles:
- Exhibit energy.
- Speak with enthusiasm.
- Think while they speak.
- Make small talk and “big” talk.
- Manage multi-tasking.
- Are easily distracted.
- Work well in teams.
- Are reserved.
- Are soft-spoken.
- Think before they speak.
- Avoid small talk; prefer in-depth conversation.
- Focus on single tasks.
- Require quiet time.
- Prefer to work alone.
Having this information could have quickly resolved the conflict between the HR leader and her CEO as they learned about one another’s strengths, preferences and value to the organization.
However, keep in mind that the traits are only a guideline. We cannot generalize in every situation. For example, I would have considered both individuals to share characteristics such as being reserved and soft-spoken.
The differences between the two were:
- The CEO was easily distracted, required time to think before speaking and focused on single tasks.
- The HR leader could think while she spoke and multi-tasked.
How Do We Bring People with Contrasting Characteristics Together?
RoAne cites Henry Powell, an HR generalist in San Francisco, who suggest that we should not label individuals are introverts or extroverts. Instead, we should embrace the diversity of what each person brings to the table, based on their backgrounds.
It is best to spend time facilitating a safe environment for the introvert to feel a part of the team and start sharing ideas. To assist people in reaching a comfort level within an organization’s department, Powell suggests that HR members support and coach line managers in achieving four steps:
- Talk to every team members one-on-one frequently in an environment that each person finds comfortable and encourage them to speak freely.
- Learn each employee’s concerns and provide necessary support.
- Give credit in team e-mails to people who may be reluctant to tout their accomplishments themselves.
- In meetings, publicly acknowledge an accomplishment or contribution of those who aren’t inclined to do so themselves. “To a one, each person has sought me out after the meeting and thanked me when I’ve done that,” Powell said.
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About the Author
Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.
Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.