Making room for the contributions of introverts

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Here’s an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education related to introversion vs. extraversion in academia that may have some lessons we can apply in the corporate world.  This has been a hot topic lately with Susan Cain and others talking about how challenging it is to be an introvert in a world dominated by extraverts.

Dr. William Pannapacker, a professor at Hope College, found in one of his graduate seminars that 100% of his students tested as extraverts after taking the MBTI.  He asserts that some of them were surely introverts but they answered the questions to comply with societal norms versus their true preferences.  He says:

Given that introversion is frowned upon almost everywhere in U.S. culture, the test might as well have asked, “Would you prefer to be cool, popular, and successful or weird, isolated, and a failure?” In the discussion that followed, a few students observed—with general agreement—that introversion was a kind of mental illness (and, one student noted, a sign of spiritual brokenness). “We are made to be social with each other” was a refrain in the conversation.

Pannapacker goes on to write about how much of a disadvantage it is to be an introverted student in graduate school, where success is defined by jumping into classroom discussions, schmoozing at networking events, and leading undergraduate classes.  He says so many talented introverts struggle to succeed in the graduate school environment. 

While he has some good points, I don’t agree with him that introverts are totally disadvantaged since they have likely advantages in tasks like research, analysis and writing.

I’m actually more concerned about introverts being at their best in many companies, especially beyond the manager or director level where they are expected to spend all day in meetings, interacting with other people.

So how do we design an introvert friendly company?  Here are a few suggestions I’d implement, as a closet introvert:

  1. Encourage people to start discussions by saying something like “here’s something to put it in your crockpot” or “I’ve got a topic for you to noodle on” so that the introvert does not feel pressured to process or respond to something immediately.
  2. Send out pre-reading and agendas to give introverts time to think through and prepare.
  3. When planning meetings or workshops, be conscious of how the schedule will impact your introverted team members and give them breaks to recharge or alone “work time” during the meetings that don’t require social interaction.
  4. Encourage taking some time every day to get some work done versus spending all day in meetings.

I’d welcome other ideas too!

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