Quiet, reserved, not one to interrupt others mid-sentence, not one to offer my ideas unless I am specifically asked to, not one to draw attention to myself, don’t necessarily enjoy small talk (I’d struggle with “How was your weekend?” but would speak volumes if asked about deeper topics such as world poverty or climate change), I feel like a fish out of water during group work, and oh my goodness I hate ice-breaker activities with a passion. How could these qualities ever allow me to become a leader? Surely these very qualities would render me dysfunctional for leadership, no?! All the aforementioned qualities I inherit from being an introvert. I used to only be aware of the ‘negatives’ of having an introverted temperament, seeing myself as a secondary citizen in an extroverted society, a quiet person that would be happy to make do with blending into the background; however, since I began to become more curious about what makes me, me I indulged in reading up on personality types and found it fascinating. Everything I read I could relate to and it all began to make sense. It is through this that I began to understand the traits of introversion and extroversion better and realised that the same introverted personality type that I had thought only came with inferior attributes actually equips me with a range of unique qualities and strengths that make me a powerful asset within a team. Some of these qualities are that: I give deep reflection to everything, I am very perceptive, I will notice a lot within an environment or amongst a group of people that most other people would miss, I am very emotionally receptive, determined, resilient, compassionate, conscientious and work with the utmost integrity, hold myself accountable (mostly to myself), follow my gut, know myself, exhibit good manners and respect to all, make others feel valued, strong, always care for the wellbeing of others, dedicated and loyal, have a strong moral compass and I work through method of consultation and listening rather than dictatorially, I do not hog the limelight but allow each member of my team to have a voice, a contribution and sense of value.
Our lives, friendships, choice of conversations, careers, leadership efficacy are all affected by our personalities. I now know that being an introvert can allow me to be a very effective leader. My knowledge in what it means to be introverted and to be happy within my own skin allows me to remain individualistic without feeling the need to conform. I am me, and it feels good. I play to my strengths and I use the strengths of my personality and temperament type to be an effective leader and to continue to improve to do so. Recently research has even gone as far to show that people perceive those that talk a lot to be effective leaders and those that talk little to be ineffective leaders and that these perceptions do not hold true, far from it. The research also shows that teams working under introverted leaders tend to be more proactive, initiative driven and feel more rewarded than those that work under extroverted leaders. This is because if extroverted leaders are not careful they can talk too much and listen too little, hog the limelight, take the credit, dictate rather than collaborate and come off very alpha.
Personality types| Introversion and Extroversion are descriptors of two main types of human personality that determines how a person re-energises, where they place their attention and what motivates them. Introverts and extroverts are known to have unique ways of energising, processing information and generally interacting with the world. It is worth noting that these two personality types exist on a continuum and although you may largely identify as being either an introvert or an extrovert you will find that you are able to move along this continuum depending on the time, moment or need of an environment but mostly you will find that you naturally rest at a particular end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum.
Living in an extrovert’s world| It is estimated that 50-74% of the population are extroverts. Despite a third to one half of us being introverts we ( in the Western society) see ourselves as a nation of extroverts and thereby propagate a value system dubbed as the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ where we see the ideal self as being fully expressive, unreserved, alpha, spotlight seeking, thinking less but acting more (even if actions are based on poor decisions). We have turned the extroverted personality type into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel the need to conform to. We seek to be more talkative, not only saying more, but saying it louder and faster, being overconfident at all times, calling the shots and holding negative bias towards those that are quieter than us, the so called introverts.
Some of our most important institutes such as schools are designed towards the Extrovert Ideal. We have activities, for staff and students alike that is always revolving around group work, collaboration, group learning and high levels of stimulation, with very few activities being catered towards those that are more introverted, leaving introverts having to pretend to be extroverts which is exhausting and energy depleting for them. It is time for us introverts to stop camouflaging ourselves and flying under the radar and instead come forward with a knowledge of what it means to be introverted, it’s kryptonite and strengths and to know how to use these strengths to propel ourselves forward in the workplace. I mean, just think about our world without the likes of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Chopin, Steven Spielberg, J.K. Rowling, Dr Seuss, Bill Gates, Rosa Parks, Walt Disney. These were all introverts who played important parts in creating and contributing to the Sciences and Culture with some of them having to lead on a level as big as that of CEO!
It’s all to do with biology| Our introversion or extroversion is the result of our biology, which is the makeup of our genes and how this impacts the functioning of our nervous system, namely the brain. Introverts are genetically highly sensitive to dopamine. Dopamine is a neurochemical that provides our brain with the feel good factor or a feeling of reward. Introverts receive enough dopamine from quiet activities such as reading a book, painting, admiring objects in a museum, cycling through the woods etc. which means that they don’t need as much external stimulation for their brain to give the body a sense of reward or a feel-good hit. Therefore introverts tend to be orderly and cautious and enjoy the comfort of routine. For an extrovert, their brain produces less dopamine and so the extrovert has to engage in more thrill-seeking behaviours to get the right amount of dopamine that gives them their feel-good hit. So this would be activities such as partying, skydiving, talking on stage to a large audience etc.
Research around the brain and its function shows that there are separate pathways for different neurochemicals within the brain. Introverts have even more blood flow to their brains meaning more internal stimulation, making different areas of the brain more sensitive to that of a non-introvert. The blood flow also takes a different pathway in an introvert’s brain compared to that of an extrovert’s. The introvert’s pathway is more complicated and focuses inwardly and internally, the blood flows through areas linked to memory, solving problems and planning, the path is a complex one. The extrovert’s brain however has a fast pathway with blood flowing to areas that recognise visual, auditory, touch, taste, and smell stimuli. Their brain focuses outwardly, they soak in sensory stimuli and it excites them and it is a quicker and more instant neural pathway. Therefore what would be overwhelming to an introvert would be exciting to an extrovert and what would be stimulating for an extrovert would be energy draining for an introvert.
Playing to your strengths| Because of all the activity happening in the brain of an introvert it means that usually we reduce eye contact when speaking as it allows us to focus on collecting our thoughts when speaking but we give our full attention and body engagement when listening to others. We can be quiet but this is not the same as being shy, we are quiet which makes us excellent listeners and we become very animated when a topic of interest is touched upon (remember I said we tend to move away from small talk and jump straight into the deep conversations). Introverts are cautious when speaking, needing more time to articulate their opinions (due to that extra complex brain pathway the blood and transmitters have to take). We are sociable but need moments of solitude for our moments of eureka in which our creativity is ignited. We are far more creative alone than we are in a group. We have a good memory although it can take a moment or two to recollect information and extrovert’s can find our pausing to mull during conversation and our slower rate of speaking rather frustrating! We are clearer about ideas and thoughts and feelings after sleeping on them due to how our brain is wired, we possess a calm and reserved manner, our actions are well-informed and we like to plan and prepare. In contrast, extroverts have less internal activity as they scan the external world for instant hits of stimulation. This means that they increase eye contact when talking but decrease it when listening to others as they are noticing what is happening in the environment, they enjoy talking and feel energised by limelight, they tend to talk more than they listen, they are good at quick thinking, do well under pressure and feel invigorated by group chat but run the risk of reaching burn-out.
Where do you fall on the Introvert-Extrovert Spectrum? Take the test here: