Build or burn?

Introverts, what are you thinking?

Introverts used to frustrate the hell out of me until I found myself in a large group divided into introverts and extroverts.  Each group sat facing the other across a large room.  The trainer asked ‘What do you want to say to the people opposite?’  After a pause I shouted out ‘What are you thinking?’  Instantly a shout came back from across the room, ‘Will you never shut up?’.

Anyone that’s been trained in leadership or teambuilding will be familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality types and Belbin’s team roles.  They’re great fun, instantly recognisable and, as much as anything, give a language framework for discussing something would otherwise be quite tricky to express.

Introverts have a hard time in management.  A manager spends most of their day with other people.  When I was a boy, my dad took me to his office and I sat for half a morning until it was time for us both to go to the dentist.  That evening my mum asked me if I thought I could do my dad’s job (he was a manager in an engineering firm).  I said yes because all it involved was talking to people on the phone and didn’t look very hard.  Introverts can do this but it takes more effort than for extroverts for whom it comes naturally.

Even those introverts that succeed into middle management find it difficult to breakthrough into leadership positions.  Leadership involves putting yourself forward, accepting the spotlight and taking advantage of the prominence of your position.  Extreme extroverts love the attention but extreme introverts would rather be left alone.

Introverts don’t make the easiest of colleagues either.  I’ve found if they are unhappy with you, they tend to bottle it up, preferring to remain unhappy than experience the unpleasantness of a conflict.  This can carry on for quite a while but eventually it will come out.  The problem is that by the time it does come out a) the level of unhappiness is quite severe and b) not necessarily having the best communication skills, the introvert has a tendency to explode.  To an extrovert they appear to have gone from green to red with no warning in between.  The result is that they express themselves inelegantly, diminishing the impact of what they’re saying.  Extroverts interpret this behaviour as sullen and even rude and, misinterpreting the reasons for this behaviour, might easily responded angrily.   The classic introvert outburst is the long e-mail and the best way for an extrovert to deal with it is not to respond but instead speak to the person.

It wasn’t until I had the experience described earlier, and heard for the first time, the inner voice of introverts wishing us extroverts would shut up, that the penny dropped.  They’re not being rude.  It’s just how they are.  Immediately I recognised the big downside in extrovert behaviour.  We don’t listen.  Extroverts like the sound of their own voice.  We are too busy talking to listen.  Often in our excitement to begin talking gain, we interrupt.  And when someone else is talking, we are busy thinking of what we’re going to say next.  Let’s be honest, it’s self-centred and even arrogant.

I have in the past received feedback from bosses to the effect that I could do more to show people I have listened and absorbed the point other people are making.  Reader, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t listen to this feedback at the time and it took me at least a decade later before I fully acknowledged it.

Introverts have to make more of an effort to speak and extroverts have to make more of an effort to listen.  Both groups probably won’t, but at least we should be aware of what we should be doing.

View all blog articles