Not just a bunch of wallflowers

partySuddenly it seems almost fashionable to be an introvert. Books, articles and lectures are popping up all over the place about the strengths they bring to organisations, and advice on how introverts can manage their careers seems to be becoming more sophisticated than the “pretend to be an extravert” message I’ve heard all my life.

I’m not sure however just how far the traditional stereotypes have been broken down yet. Mention introversion to many people, and they still think this means shy, awkward, anti-social individuals who are far less fun to be with than their outgoing, party-loving extraverted counterparts. Most people know little about the psychological use of the terms as proposed by Carl Jung and the Myers-Briggs mother-daughter combo, for whom the difference between introversion and extraversion was not about how sociable or gregarious people are, but about whether it’s the internal or external world where they focus their attention and get their energy.

According to the Myers-Briggs research, introverts make up about half the adult population; yet the business world still seems to have a bias in favour of extraverts. If we take the critical management skill of networking as an example, many events and conferences place the emphasis on cramming in as much activity and meeting as many people as possible in a short space of time, which works well for extraverts but is not so great for introverts. In recognition of this, a lot of advice is available showing introverts how to “work a room” and use these events successfully.

On closer inspection however, some of the advice is not really about networking for introverts at all; it’s more about networking for beginners or for shy people. Of course this can be invaluable if you are a newcomer to networking or are indeed shy, but for introverts it can sometimes be rather patronising. It also usually boils down to tips on how to behave more like an extravert, and while this is an option, this is too close to the “fake it ‘til you make it” school of thought for comfort. Being fake is not exactly a good starting point for getting to know people, establishing trust and developing sustainable business relationships.

Introverts need to be authentic to their own strengths rather than feel pressurised to adopt extravert behaviours. Yes, introverts can and do learn a lot from extraverts, but then again extraverts have a lot to learn from introverts. At the very least, it makes sense for extraverts to learn how to do business in a way that doesn’t exclude and possibly alienate half their potential contacts and customers.

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