Why companies should be shifting the extravert culture

It’s time we started to value the quieter, considered contributions of introverts in our employ if we’re serious about diversity, equity and inclusion, says Joanna Rawbone

It could be that many of you haven’t heard of the extraversion bias, or the problems associated with an extravert culture, so a quick explanation of the difference between introvert and extravert (or extrovert) is a good place to start when addressing why companies should be shifting the extravert culture.

Introversion and extraversion explained

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung explained that the difference between introverts and extraverts is where they get their mental energy from; what drains and what charges their batteries. And we rely on a good charge in our mental batteries to do our best work.

The term introvert has been used since the 17th century to mean ‘turn within, direct inward’ and it wasn’t until the 20th century that Carl Jung introduced us to the counter-attitude of the extravert, meaning to ‘turn outwards’.  

So, in simple terms, introverts turn inwards to recharge whilst extraverts turn outwards. And yet, there are so many misconceptions about what being an introvert means that many feel awkward about owning their introversion. Neuroimaging studies show that the brains of introverts and extraverts light up differently when stimulated in the same way, so we are wired differently.

If the concept of the extravert is a more recent introduction, when did it become the norm? And who decided that it was introverts who were neurodiverse? Perhaps it was around the time that the charismatic leadership theory came to prominence in the mid to late 1990s.

One of my C-suite clients says that the extravert bias in business is the last acceptable prejudice in the workplace.

Let us then look at our working environments with open-plan offices being the norm since the early 1900s. They were intended to be more like a factory setting with rows of desk in the middle and manager’s office around the perimeter, supposedly supporting efficiencies so sought after in that era. This morphed into the pod layout in the 1960s within the vast open plan.

However, an open plan setting really doesn’t suit the introverted employees, and before you dismiss them as a minority, up to 50% of any population identifies as an introvert.

Introverts are naturally over-stimulated mentally, so find the additional stimulation of an open plan office with the inherent noise, interruptions and distractions overwhelming. They recharge quietly, on their own or in companionable silence and if they have their way, usually have a calm home set-up. That’s why so many introverts have enjoyed the working from home option through recent lockdowns and are probably not keen to return to the office now things are opening up.

Because extraverts are recharged by social interaction, active experiences and change, the open plan office is their playground. They are much more likely to be champing at the bit to get back into the office as they’ve missed the banter, the chat around the water cooler and the general buzz.

So, what is the broader extravert culture that’s so problematic?

A business culture is how people behave based on their beliefs, values and attitudes. An extravert culture is that which rewards or otherwise promotes behaviour associated with extraversion and includes:

  • Impromptu, unstructured meetings
  • Valuing those who push themselves forward
  • Overlooking those who keep their head down and get on with their work quietly.

Let’s unpack these one by one.

Meetings.

Introverts have a think-say-think communication process so need adequate time to reflect on the issues up for discussion. Yet often this pause for reflection is judged as being dithering, a lack of confidence, or a lack of interest/commitment.

The reality is that in a faced paced environment, introverts may not get to the say part of their process, adding to the misconceptions. Introverts are more likely to do any pre-reading and prepare so they find unstructured meetings really frustrating. As part of their communication process, introverts are more likely to contribute if they have something of value to add so may be too quiet in poorly chaired meetings that become a talking shop; just think how that drains their mental batteries. And yet, they are the very meetings that extraverts probably find stimulating and with their say-think-say stream of consciousness communication process, they can be hard to corral. They will be quick to offer ideas which are unlikely to be thought through and unless someone captures the idea quickly, may be lost before it can be explored. 

If we add to this the current resurgence of thinking out loud problem-solving practices which play to the strengths of the extravert, introverts are going to struggle to get a word in and be heard. So, guess what, they may not even try.

Is pushy better?

We often associate words like hustle with the world of ambitious employees and entrepreneurs but how necessary is it?

We recently heard about Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan at a Wall Street Journal conference saying that working from home needs to come to an end because it ‘…doesn’t work for those who want to hustle. It doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation. It doesn’t work for culture’, but his comments haven’t gone down well with everyone.

Introverts are not renowned for ‘hustling’ but is ambition only demonstrated through hustling? I think not. In my more than three decades as a learning and development consultant, I have repeatedly seen people push, hustle, and blag their way to their first level of incompetence, which is often a costly situation to correct. Just look at the successful thought leaders and businesses established by introverts; Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, Bill Gates, Marissa Meyer, and Richard Branson to name but a few. 

It’s time we started to value the quieter, considered contributions of introverts in our employ if we’re serious about diversity, equity and inclusion. We may not hear from them so frequently, but what they do say often has the power to stop us in our tracks. Let’s make space for that contribution because I can assure you that introverts are ambitious too.

The cost of overlooking the quiet ones

I’m finding that the extraversion bias is largely unconscious, which is relatively good news because that makes it a little easier to tackle. Bringing the issue to conscious awareness, making it discussable then running education programmes enhances equitable inclusion. Introverts don’t want special treatment; they want a level playing field.

But the cost is huge. If up to 50% of your employees are pretending to fit in and get on, it’s taking a massive toll on their health and wellbeing. Sickness rates will be higher and engagement lower in real terms. And for those not pretending, whose natural skills and qualities are being overlooked, who have been judged as unambitious, shy, and not a team player, that’s a lot of talent you’re leaving on the table.

In a worst-case scenario, you may even have allowed this prejudice to colour your redundancy decisions post-pandemic.

Here are some of the natural qualities of an introvert that benefit businesses:

  • Listening – with ears and eyes. Introverts typically notice what isn’t being said.
  • Observing – they notice more than most and can take in unexpected detail.
  • Problem solving – the more challenging the better and they’re great at sticking with it to uncover the root cause.
  • Meaningful conversation – they get into the serious stuff that matters and ask insightful questions.
  • Thought-through creativity – well researched and considered, so ready to be incorporated with the spontaneous problem-solving situations.
  • Calmness – good at defusing situations and avoiding drama.
  • Well-prepared – more likely to do the pre-work and be ready to participate.
  • Engaged – quietly self-motivated, resourceful, and focused. Many introverts find getting into what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines as a state of consciousness called Flow, relatively easy in the right conditions. 
  • Written communications – usually preferred to the spoken word.

Can you afford to miss out on these qualities?

Changing culture

This is always the hardest bit and many of you will know that culture change takes time and commitment. And then there’s the challenge of making it sticky so people don’t slip back into old habits and old ways of being. Any time we work on a behaviour change to create a new norm, we’ll face resistance. My starting point as a change agent when looking to minimise resistance is The Beckhard-Harris Change Equation in which:

Dissatisfaction x Vision x First steps > Resistance.

So, exploring why it’s not a great idea to stay where we are living our current norms, a clear idea of what good looks like so we know where we’re ultimately heading and being supported on those first steps is essential.

Are you up for the change?

If you’re serious about the breadth of diversity, equity and inclusion, then taking action to shift this culture, is a must. Recruiting is far more costly in terms of time and money than engaging and retaining employees, so the decision is yours; commit to surface the unconscious bias and change the culture or become the victim of it. 

Joanna Rawbone has spent more than 24 years working with international clients through her consultancy, Scintillo Ltd.

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 real 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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