When knowledge just isn’t enough: addressing the extraversion bias in business

It’s often the introverts who get the work done, while the extraverts are talking about things, but diverse and effective workplaces need to comprise both the introverts and extroverts to thrive, says Joanna Rawbone

If you’re reading this and thinking ‘extraversion bias? Really? Where?’ read on. Everyone you work with and for will thank you for it.

However, if you’re reading this thinking ‘at last!’ again read on, as you’re needed to initiate and embed change.

We often hear that knowledge is king, but actually it’s understanding the application of knowledge that makes the difference.

So, what are we talking about?

The differences and preferences begin to emerge in childhood and this is where the bias begins. People worry about the child who prefers reading quietly to playing boisterously. Or telling the student who does better work on their own that they’re not a team player. And then there’s having concerns about the employee who doesn’t join in with the banter or post-work socialising. All examples of the extraversion bias.

Let’s start by clearing up some of the myths and misunderstandings about introversion. With up to half of most populations identifying as introverts, they are present in every walk of life, yet often not appreciated for their natural talents. Many people don’t learn until later life that their difference is down to introversion and it comes as a huge relief.

For starters, introverts are often thought of as shy, arrogant, boring, tongue-tied and lonely with no friends or social life. Worse still, people mistakenly think introverts lack drive and ambition. The reality is that introverts may be quiet because that’s what they need to recharge their mental batteries. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, explained that the difference between introverts and extraverts is what drains and charges their mental batteries. Introverts are already overstimulated mentally, so focus inwards; ‘intro’.

Extraverts seek out interaction, active experiences and change in order to be energised. Their focus is towards the external world; ‘extra’. This means they are naturally more vocal, more social and more engaging, because their charge in their mental batteries rely on those things. So, the very things that can drain an introvert recharges the extravert. And we wonder why there is tension and misunderstanding.

Their communication processes are different too. Introverts have the more considered and slower paced ‘think-say-think’ approach. This means they mean what they say, and it often comes out perfectly formed. Extraverts on the other hand, tend to have a stream of consciousness, or ‘say-think-say’ process. They often need to speak in order to understand what they’re thinking.

Unless people are aware of and value these differences, the bias is compounded. It’s common for an introvert not to get to the ‘say’ part of their process if they haven’t had enough time to think or reflect. A great manager, leader or chairperson will allow space in the conversation so all voices can be heard. Without this, people may assume that the introvert has nothing to say for themselves, no opinion and no contribution. Once the space is created, you’ll often find that the quietest voice makes the most profound contribution.

It’s a sad fact that some really talented introverts will get overlooked for promotion because they are less likely to push themselves forward, hoping instead that their work will speak for itself.

How the bias presents

Within study and work teams, introverts are often considered arrogant, too serious and not team players. What’s actually going on is that they don’t enjoy small-talk, preferring instead fewer but meaningful conversations. This means they don’t often engage in the social chit-chat and will tend to keep their heads down in an attempt to maintain their focus and preserve their mental batteries. It’s often the introverts who get the work done in a team whilst the extraverts are having fun talking about things.

Because of the bias, many introverts have learned how to ‘extravert’ in order to fit in with the norm, but the price they pay is high. It includes overwhelm and even burn-out, which seriously affects their wellbeing. Too long spent in an environment that requires them to act out of preference for too long means they’ll need to withdraw to replenish their batteries just to get through the day. The result? A deep sense of not being ‘enough’ being themselves, as it’s only by pretending that they seem to be accepted.

Managers and fellow team members often don’t understand or even believe that people don’t enjoy the ‘fun’ stuff, forgetting that fun is subjective.

Recruiters and interviewing managers are often guilty of looking for the outgoing, high contributors, and have admitted marking down those who don’t get heard. What message does this send? Do we want workplaces where input is valued over listening? When job applicants are coached in how to put themselves ‘out there’ during the interview process, employers are often disappointed when it can’t be sustained in the workplace.

The solution?

Developing a working knowledge of the differences and how to create a truly inclusive culture is essential. It’s also integral to the diversity, inclusion and equity agenda. Whose responsibility is this? Employers, employees and recruiters.

Introverts need to claim their strengths so they can talk about them positively and create opportunities to play to them more often. Their strengths include listening, observing, assimilating, problem solving, persistence, probing questioning, diligent researchers, considered contributors, thought-through creativity, calmness, good at defusing drama, well-prepared, self-motivated, resourceful, and focused.

These are all valuable skills that any employer could be looking for.

Introverts find it infuriating to be told ‘You’re always so quiet’ and ‘you should speak up more often’. But, it gives them a great opportunity to explain and educate. The bias can’t be addressed and shifted if the introverts are colluding rather than helping others to understand.

Employers need to check the conscious and unconscious bias in their everyday practices and processes. What needs changing? How will the changes be embedded?

Be mindful of the introvert’s ‘think-say-think’ process, so give plenty of notice and allow sufficient preparation time. They don’t like things being sprung on them at short notice or being asked to make a decision without thinking time.

Brief in advance of problem-solving sessions so they have ordered their thoughts and can contribute to the spontaneous process in the meeting.  

Create opportunities for them to play to their strengths and you’ll have a more engaged, more productive workforce.

Create introvert friendly workplaces with quiet spaces for recharging.

Recruiters need to be briefed to assess for quality rather than just quantity of contributions. In group assessment activities, their process should allow candidates sufficient time to conduct research so they can form their own opinions. Then assess on some of the more natural introvert skills like listening, observing, summarising, clarifying and being the steadying voice of reason. Many now include an individual task after a discussion task so candidates are assessed on their ability to reflect, assimilate ideas and produce a report. Where extraverts shine during the discussion, say-think-say, Introverts often produce the best reports. This results in a more balanced assessment, and the potential of richer for the organisation.

In conclusion

Make it your business to develop your understanding of this aspect of neurodiversity, whatever your role. There is no good & bad, just different, and with up to half of any population identifying as introverts, we are not talking about insignificant numbers.

Dispel the myths actively, in order to create an inclusive business culture. It will deliver measurable benefits.

We all have responsibility for reducing and ultimately eliminating this bias, for the health and wellbeing of employees. It’s part of our duty of care.

Joanna Rawbone has spent more than 24 years working with thousands of international clients through her own training and coaching consultancy, Scintillo Ltd. During this time, and through her own earlier experiences, she has seen just how problematic the Extraversion bias in organisations is. It negatively impacts employee engagement, retention and productivity. It also impairs the physical and mental health & well-being of employees with the obvious consequences.

Recognising that it was time for action, Joanna founded Flourishing Introverts, a platform to support those who want to fulfil their potential without pretending to be something they’re not; educate and inform organisations about the true cost of overlooking their introverts; and promote positive action and balance the extraversion bias

Joanna has a passion for helping her clients make the small but sustainable changes that really make a difference. Being a functioning introvert, her clients value her ability to listen to more than the words, understand things from their perspective and co-create robust, pragmatic solutions.


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