How to take into account the needs of introverts in the work community
Introvertit - työpaikan hiljainen vallankumous
I’ve always been a quiet contemplator who thrives better with dogs than with humans. Countless times I’ve been in a situation where someone asks if I’m all right because I’m so quiet. That question has already become a curse word, so often I have heard it.
I might seem quiet but, in my mind, I’m lost in my own inner world of thoughts, thinking with 40 tabs open and problem-solving. I’m fluent in silence – I listen more than I talk, and I think before I speak. I horror a small talk but get high on meaningful conversations. Sometimes I feel that 70 % of who I am never makes it out of my head.
One of the turning points in my life has been getting to know myself better and realizing that there are others like me in this world – introverts. It has been comforting to learn that introversion is not a trait that needs to be get rid of but can be turn into strength.
The psyche of introverts and extroverts
The Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung provided a comprehensive description of the introverted and extroverted personality types for the first time in 1921. Studies show that introverts constitute anywhere from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the population. (Sand 2018, 16.)
Introversion is biologically determined. Introversion and extroversion are about a certain level of activity that is required before hormones communicate well-being to the brain. (Jonkman 2015, 51.) So, introversion is about how a person response to stimulation including social stimulation. Extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation whereas introverts feel at their most alive, their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments.
For example, group discussion may seem like a peaceful activity, but for the brain, the social situation means a huge amount of information. We observe hand movements, expressions, postures, and tones while also listening and trying to find meanings between the lines. Introverts and extroverts experience the same situation differently: introverts get overwhelmed of all the flood of information and extroverts may be on the verge of falling asleep because they don’t get enough stimuli.
Studies have found that introverts receive more information than extroverted ones. This results in introverts getting exhausted and overloaded, which in introverts evokes a desire to withdraw. Magnetic resonance imaging has shown that introverts carry faster blood flow to the front of the brain than extroverts. These parts of the brain solve problems and reflect on things. (Jonkman 2015, 52.)
It’s important to know the level of stimulation that provides us with the greatest well-being. We receive a huge quantity of information and stimuli from our surroundings every day. When introverts are over-stimulated, it is unpleasant for them to be in a social context and painful to have to receive even more information (Sand 2018, 48). Time to time introverts can get so stressed form too many activities or impressions that it can be a long time before they feel like they are themselves again. It’s important to find time and space to sort out these impressions.
The internal excitation state of the introvert is high. Therefore, introverts must constantly calm themselves, that is, lower the level of internal stimulation. This is done by lowering the stimulation of the environment. Extroversion involves a low internal excitation state, and extroverts have to constantly pick up stimuli from the outside world. To put it bluntly, it could be said that the stimulation of the introverts is found inside their own head and the extroverts need the help of the outside world to elevate their excitation state. (Keltikangas-Järvinen 2019, 188-189.)
When trying to make assumption whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert, you typically ask the following question: “Are you energised most from being alone or from being in the company of others?” If your predominant need is to be alone when you are tired, you are probably an introvert.
According to C.G. Jung, what characterises extroverts is primarily their interest in the external, material world, in people and activities. Introverts are more interested in experiences in their own inner world of thoughts, dreams, desires, and fantasies – or that from other people. Introverts are more interested in feeling what the external world does to them and finding meaning in what takes place. (Sand 2018, 25.) Introverts rarely speak just to say something. They usually want a deeper intimacy or common interest to enjoy discussions.
There are no such thing as pure introvert or pure extrovert – we all fall at different points along the introvert/extrovert spectrum.
Highly sensitive person
Many sources on introversion also mention the concept of a highly sensitive person – many introverts are also sensitive. High sensitivity is connected to being very susceptible to the impressions that come through senses. Highly sensitive persons are more bothered by sounds, smells, lights, cold or warmth than others. Highly sensitive persons also feel positive sense of impressions more strongly, like nice scents and a beautiful piece of music.
People who are highly sensitive are characterized by susceptibility to effects, accuracy, imagination, low stress tolerance, and strong empathy. Common characteristics of introverted and sensitive individuals include sensitivity to stimuli, low threshold to stress, ability to tolerate boredom, experience of exhaustion from human contact, focus on detail and quality, and a tendency to reflect on things for a long time. (Jonkman 2015, 68.)
The power of introverts
There are many positive aspects to introversion that can also be exploited in working life. One obvious strength is the ability to tolerate monotony. Introverted people have a rich internal dialogue, so there is no need to seek so much stimuli from the outside world. Tolerance of boredom as well as an inherent ability to concentrate also partly explains the fact that introverts tend to be more successful academically. (Jonkman 2015, 172).
Introverts are usually characterized by punctuality and respect for time. Introverts also tend to manage their time better than extroverts. Studies show that extroverted people perceive the passage of time differently than introverted people – extroverts think time passes faster than introverts. (Jonkman 2015, 28.)
Introverts and extroverts also process information differently. Introverted people perform better in tasks that require in-depth and long-term thinking. Introverts think slowly but as large entities and receive a lot of information before ending up with analysis.
Introverts are usually also good at interpreting social situations and their strengths include emotional intelligence. This is thought to be because introverts constantly observe and analyse what is going on around them.
Introverts and sensitive persons feel it’s important for their occupation to have meaning for them personally (Sand 2018, 61). Many choose a career that provides care for others and others choose a routine job which is not too stimulating for them. Many authors and musicians are also introverted. To be talented in something, a person usually needs a large number of repetitions. Introverts are usually good at repeating, as discipline and patience are usually the characteristics of an introvert.
What introverts need
I remember being nervous and having palpitates during our first training sessions in Proakatemia. I overthought about what I’m going to say because I wanted things to come out perfectly and I was nervous that everyone will stare at me. I wanted to contribute to a group conversation, but I overthought what I’m about to say to the point where the topic had already changed.
For introverts it’s important that there are enough breaks in the discussions so that even slower thinkers can contribute. I actually often find myself expressing myself better in writing than orally. Written communication has the advantage that I can participate at my own tempo – I can take time to consider my answers. That’s one of the reasons I also dread phone calls, not having the time to consider what I need to say.
Speaking of considering, introverts often need more time to make rational decisions. They should be given enough information to support their decision making and let them think about it in peace. Making spontaneous decisions is often difficult for introverts. Introverts can receive a huge amount of information, but after that, introverts need time to sort the information in their head, look at it, and evaluate it. After analysis, introverts may see the matter quite differently than it first looked. So, introverts need time to think so that their strength, their ability to analyse, is not wasted. (Jonkman 2015, 228.)
Studies have shown that group brainstorming sessions are often dominated by the most verbal participants – the loudest people get their ideas through. However, creativity often needs loneliness, and the best ideas are often only generated after the meetings. (Jonkman 2015, 228.) Introverts often have incidents in which what they have said was ignored but, later, when someone else said the same thing – only in a louder voice and with greater self-confidence – it won applause. Unfortunately, it’s part of our culture that we listen most to extroverts. However, we can all contribute to this by preparing the meetings well before, giving participants enough time to analyse the information as well as asking and listening to the opinions of quieter people.
Stress and noise degrade introvert performance. The pressure causes the introvert’s ability to function to decline and they become passive. The key to maximizing our talents is for us all to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us. In the workplace, introverts like calm surroundings. That’s why open-plan offices are often difficult for introverts because concentration is constantly interrupted by something. For introverts, the phone conversations of others or the sound of text messages can be great irritation and a source of distraction. (Jonkman 2015, 221.)
Introverts also need privacy, freedom, and autonomy at work so it’s important to consider those needs. Usually, introverts achieve the best results when they can work undisturbed and quietly, where they disappear into deep concentration or a state of flow. The more freedom that we give introverts to be themselves, the more likely they are to come up with their own unique solutions to problems.
Introverts save their social energy on events where it is needed. Excessive sociality causes introverts neural network to heat up, making it difficult to enjoy the situation. Despite this, introverts like people and need people around them. Introverts think the best thing is to be together without having to constantly talk and react to something.
Introverts as a leaders
Leadership requires the ability to work and communicate well with people, attend and lead meetings and often speak in public. These expectations tend to favour extroverts in leadership roles and organizations may ignore the strengths of introverts as leaders. But an introvert and an extrovert lead differently.
An introvert’s dedication to things is a silent force of nature, but it is seen as a weakness in a world where the loudest voice often decides success. Unfortunately, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful and are much less likely to take outsize risks. Group famously follows the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.
But when it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best: introverts can be beloved bosses because they have a good sense of the well-being of their co-workers and are good listeners.
Introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes that extroverts do, because when they are managing proactive employees, they’re much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas, whereas extroverts can, quite unwittingly, get so excited about things that they’re putting their own stamp on things, and other people’s ideas might not as easily then get up to the surface.
Several studies end up finding that it depends on the organization which one is the better leader. An extrovert leads differently than an introvert: extrovert leads by participating more. An introvert is better at creating a long-term vision for an organization, while an extrovert is better at organizing operations in a crisis. (Keltikangas-Järvinen 2019, 260.) Introvert and extrovert employees also value different qualities in a leader.
The key is to understand the strengths and weaknesses of personality types to help individuals developing leadership to achieve organizational goals. The organization may seek a balance of extroversion and introversion on their leadership team to balance out the strengths and weaknesses to create a united set of skills that advance the organisation. The selection of a leader should not only consider the leader’s abilities but the type of leadership that will be most effective within an organization. (Farrell 2017.)
At Proakatemia, our studies are based on teamwork and dialogue. For introverts, that can be at times stressful. Some days I jump from one topic to another, have eight hours of dialogue with different people, have a small talk in the kitchen and another at lunch, receive dozens of messages via email or Teams. Often in the evenings my social battery is so run down that my brain shuts down and I can only stare into the emptiness with my glazed eyes and gather energy for the next day. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy studying here. I just need a lot of time to recover after a day like the one I described.
The biggest introvert problem I face has got to be being asked if I’m okay because I’m so silent. I get the message all the time that somehow my quiet and introverted style of being is not necessarily the right way to go, and I should be trying to pass as more of an extrovert. I can act in the world in an extroverted way if I need to. But if that goes on for an extended period of time, I’ll get tired. There are limits to our capacity to act out of character.
It can be also very harmful to get stuck in a foreign role. Psychologist Katherine Benzinger has studied this phenomenon. According to her, the burnout is mainly due to the conflict between personality type and professional role. In her research, Benzinger found some worrying symptoms when examining people who acted in a way that distorted their personality: often their immune system was weakened, their memory was poor, and they had sleep disorders. (Jonkman 2015, 206.)
So, it is important for us to identify different personality types and consider their needs. If there’s too much going on around me, I get tired and prefer to rest alone in peace and quiet, or maybe with a single person I know well. That doesn’t mean I don’t like people or want to be a part of community events. I enjoy meeting interesting people, but preferably one at a time and talk about things that seem real.
It’s funny that I ended up studying teamwork even though I’ve never been crazy about group assignments. I’ve preferred to work independently or with a couple people who I know well and who I can trust. However, I have also learned to enjoy teamwork. I have also had to learn to be the center of attention, for example when giving a presentation or a pitch. Introverts can have a hard time with that, but practise makes perfect. I have actively put myself in situations where I must perform and with time, I have started to also enjoy it. But I must prepare well to make myself secure and I need time to rest alone before any presentation.
Western culture glorifies extroverts, in the East a culture of introverts’ flourishes. Like I said in the beginning of this essay, introversion is not a trait that needs to be get rid of but can be turn into strength. Each personality type has its own strengths and combining different personality types result in a diverse group with different qualities and strengths. By recognizing these strengths, we make working more meaningful for everyone.
Farrell, M. 2017. Leadership Reflections: Extrovert and Introvert Leaders. Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Jonkman, L. 2015. Introvertit – Työpaikan hiljainen vallankumous. Jyväskylä: Atena Kustannus Oy.
Keltikangas-Järvinen, L. 2019. Ujot ja introvertit. Helsinki: WSOY.
Sand, I. 2018. On Being an Introvert or Highly Sensitive Person: A Guide to Boundaries, Joy, and Meaning. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.