Shy, asocial, quiet, and at times just weird, introverts don’t seem to fit into the image of leaders, as we tend to associate leadership and outspoken personalities. However, a true fascination by introverts is currently going on in the management world, particularly in the US. Several articles and books have been published in the last months. The most recent one, Quiet, has been featured in a cover of Time a couple of weeks ago, and her author, Susan Cain, has presented in TED with great success (there’s also available a written summary of the talk). Let’s review then what is behind this cool topic and its implications for diversity management in organizations.
A foundational article of this “intro-fever” is “10 Myths About Introverts“. It went viral on the web and it sets the stage to better understand introverted people and dispel some common stereotypes about them. It seems that brain chemistry plays a key role: introverts are over-sensitive to dopamine, while extroverted people need a lot of it which they create from a higher dose of adrenaline. Whatever the reason, the truth is that introverts just need less social interactions because they get easily exhausted with them. They do enjoy conversation and people but just at a different pace, and they also take a lot of satisfaction of solitude and listening. They are intrinsically different people, that’s all.
An extroverted world
Introverts are estimated to account between one third and one fourth of the total population. Their different personality was nothing “unusual” in the past. Quoting Susan Cain, Jenna Goudreau explains in The Secret Power of Introverts, that until the twentieth century we lived in a “culture of character”. The general expectation was that people display moral behavior and discretion. The rise of modern cities and businesses brought a lot of agglomeration and with it, the need to stand out in the crowd. This led to our current “culture of personality” and the importance of having an expansive personality.
In the last times, we have built a highly extroverted world, a new Groupthink, with open spaces in the offices, frequent brainstorming sessions and unlimited meetings. What we don’t seem to realize is that this work environment don’t facilitate the creativity and innovation that, as research shows, many introverts could display but only if they are able to get the proper intimacy and isolation.
Best leaders or just different leaders
Same authors claim that introverts can make the best leaders, as their listening skills, focus on depth or calmed approach are great assets in the workplace. A research from Harvard has shown that introverted leaders are the best with proactive employees (=knowledge workers) because their skills help unlock the full potential of the team. It also seems that they could be better mentors of Generation Y. Definitely, sometimes introverts have superpowers.
As with any new management concept, in particular if it comes from the U.S, we have already lists of tips and bullet points on how to harness the innovative power of introverts. I’m afraid though that the main issue is that our talent management systems are not designed to identify introverted talent. These people hardly do self-promotion and they lack the skills of orientation to action and assertiveness that we most love in organizations.
A new social identity?
From a diversity management perspective, all this good noise about “introverts” is helpful. It will raise the visibility of “diverse talent” and will potentially broaden the conversation away from gender or race. On another hand, we run also the risk of creating a new social category, a new identity with two poles, when the truth is that introversion-extraversion is not a single quality but a complex one made up of six different facets. The oversimplification won’t help to see this in terms of development (see Daniel Goleman’s article “Are you too shy to lead?“).
Finally, I guess the rise of introverts is mainly a Western concept. I hardly see this globally applicable as Asian cultures they don’t seem to have quite a strong “culture of personality”. But that’s a whole new discussion…