Introverts and extraverts: chalk and cheese or bread and butter?

NB Team

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One of the most famous titles in work-themed self-help literature has to be “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. It’s all about dealing with people, making them like you, and generally being a leader. In many ways, it’s a book about how to be a successful extravert.

Dale Carnegie’s book is by no means an anomaly in the world of work. The value of extraversion is clear. We use words and phrases like “alpha”, “bold”, or “go-getter”, and we usually mean them positively. With the rise of the open plan office from their initial conception in the spring of 1962, we’ve placed an additional value on being “chatty” as a method of fitting in. In the PR world more than perhaps any other, we encourage brainstorms, hot-desking and “touching base” as never before. In and of itself, these are all great things – unless of course, you’re just not programmed that way.

For a lot of introverts, that’s their reality. It’s not that they’re shy or antisocial, they just work better in “low stimulation” environments (in fact, that’s how many people now define introversion against extraversion). We’ve all had those moments where there’s a little too much going on and we feel overwhelmed, and for many introverts that can be the experience of chatty, open plan workplaces.

In such workplaces, introverts can gain a bad reputation. Some of the most prevalent negative perceptions of introverts are:

  • Introverts are not leadership material
  • Introverts are not team players
  • Introverts need “help” in social situations

This isn’t to say that introverts don’t have a similar list of gripes about extraverts, but as a rule, they tend to be quieter about them! As extraverts (perceived as better leaders) tend to be in positions of authority, and are likely to be the ones considering promotions, introverts can often feel pressured to become “fake extraverts” in order to get ahead.

That’s the real shame – because in screening out introverts we lose a different style of leadership that can be incredibly complementary to the already-established extraverted model. While an extravert can run away with ideas, introverts tend to consider something carefully before they speak. As a result, team members under introverted leadership are more likely to feel they can speak out and run with their own ideas than they might under extroverted leadership (according to Bruna Martinuzzi, on the American Express Openforum) , and often make better listeners. Introverts can also be more creative (as seen in research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist et al). With about 50% of the population being introverts, it’s an awful lot of people to be passing over because they think differently.

We’re living in changing times though; with the digital revolution and changing methods of working (working from home, for example), the world is beginning to re-welcome introverts back into the fold. However, as much as we give with one hand, we take with the other, and introverts and extraverts are often seen as speaking different languages.

This doesn’t need to be the case. Last month, the FT ran a piece on pairing introverts and extraverts to create a “dream team”. Some of its most famous examples of introvert-extrovert pairings include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and Apple’s Steve Jobs with Steve Wozniak. It’s hard to deny that these partnerships have had incredible success from blending the two personality types to produce better, more rounded teams.

So what’s the advice for introverts working with extraverts and vice versa? In many ways it’s simply common sense. According to Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of a recently published book on the subject, extraverts need to give introverts their space, and learn to be quieter. Introverts, on the other hand, should prepare for conversations in advance, and learn to paraphrase what an extrovert says; this helps extraverts realise that they are being heard while giving introverts time to think about their own thoughts on the matter.

Working as we do in an extraverted field like PR, especially alongside a more introverted field like technology, it’s incredibly important to learn to bridge the gaps between the two mentalities.  We’re great at being loud and chatty and communicating messages, but the ability to appreciate and understand quiet is one of the things that lets us excel at our job.