As part of the newly formed editorial team within Introverts Network Asia (INA), I thought that it would be great if we could have more evidence-based data to guide our initiatives and the strategies that we are recommending to the community. However, as I poured hours into the research work, I discovered valuable information that questioned my very own foundational assumptions about being an introvert.
According to Kaufman (2014) in his Scientific American article, we are not an introvert just because we identify with being highly sensitive, deep thinker, reflective, introspective, intelligent, socially anxious, defensive, vulnerable or always prefer solitude over social interaction.
He further explains that while our ideas about introversion are based on our own theory, experience and intuition, scientists use empirical data to identify personality dimensions. Being highly introspective is not unique to introverts. People often confuse qualities of introversion with traits that belong in the intellect/imagination domain. Sensory processing is also independent of introversion. The two facets that scientists suggest predominantly determine whether we are an introvert are actually the absence of enthusiasm and assertiveness.
Modern scientists now postulate that the real core of introverts is not necessarily that they turn inwards (think of the many extroverts who are meditating or practising mindfulness these days) nor are they categorised based on their preferences for smaller social interaction (even extroverts have a few close friends they prefer to hang out with). They argued that these are just by-products of the real core of introverts; absence of constructs called reward sensitivity (Lucas et al., 2000) and the tendency to behave in ways that attract social attention (Ashton et al., 2002). There are differences in the way our brain responds. An introvert’s brain does not reward them with dopamine during potentially rewarding social interactions in the same way that the brain of an extrovert does, hence they feel more emotionally-drained and social interactions become more effortful.
It also does not help that historically, introversion has been significantly attributed to pathology. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) which was once the most researched personality test in the world included the Social Introversion Scale which assumed that those who measure highly on it were more likely to possess symptoms of mental illness compared to ‘normals’ rated as extraverted (Buchanan, 1994). The subsequent development of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) however, provided a less damning interpretation to introversion. Meant as a career guide to help women entering the workforce for the first time during World War II, MBTI is a self-reporting instrument that measures strengths, personality preferences and informs us of our preferred methods for information processing and decision making. Introversion and extraversion became neutral variables of how people derive and spend their energy (Fudjack, 2013).
About four decades ago, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) was considering the official diagnosis of “introverted personality disorder” which led to a strong protest in writing from mental health professionals. In 2010, Nancy Ancowitz sounded the alarm again warning us about the possibility that APA may include introversion in the next edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) making introversion a contributing factor in diagnosing certain personality disorders. Thankfully, her fear did not materialise.
Nevertheless, these points highlight the deep confusion, the stigma and the great need for continued meaningful conversations and research into the topic of introversion. It is no wonder then that many prefer to keep their introverted nature under wraps, especially at the workplace.
So what does it mean for introverts at the workplace?
“My director told me that the quality of my work is perfect but they are hesitant to promote me to a leadership position. They think that I am not suitable because they assessed that I am rather quiet.”
Alice was increasingly frustrated and resentful. They are asking her to stay yet she sees no sign of progression. And she is not alone.
Most introverts are great at their jobs yet often, they may be overlooked when it comes to promotions. It becomes increasingly harder to clinch a new job or make the jump into leadership roles. There exists an extraversion bias in most workplaces today. Relatively, there are not many companies that have specific policies on the career progressions of individual contributors.
LinkedIn has listed the top five soft skills in demand in 2020 as creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and emotional intelligence. Compared to extroverts whom scientists suggest have developed a high intensity strategy for gaining social attention, introverts may seem less driven, less engaged, less assertive and may display less enthusiasm. As such, introverts may wish to consider re-examining the energy that they bring to their workplace, strategise according to their strengths, constantly grow their skill sets and demonstrate strong leadership in a way that is congruent with themselves. Here are three suggestions on how to do so.
1. Choose Your Narratives
“I did not take on that opportunity because it did not go well the last time round. I was so nervous about the whole presentation. I felt sick in the stomach and I almost blanked out. I was panicking and I was scrambling to put the materials together. I did not feel good enough. I was also rambling away when I did it. I told myself I never want to do it again.”
Alan was so immersed in his internal story. I asked him what was the eventual outcome.
“Interestingly, they said it was good. I survived.”
Introverts are found to experience positive affect, connectedness and flow when they engage in increased extraverted behaviour (Margolis, S., & Lyubomirsky, S., 2020). However, they make an affective forecasting error when they consider extraverted behaviours—namely, they underestimate the positive affect and overestimate the negative affect they will experience while performing extraverted acts (Zelenski et al., 2013). Introverts do have a thicker gray matter in the prefrontal cortex of their brains which meant that they spent more resources in thought than extraverts (Holmes et al., 2012).
As much as thoughtful deliberation is important, it is also wise that we recognise how our consequential thinking may be over-utilised and how we might be closing ourselves out to new possibilities. When we rewire our thought patterns and communicate with ourselves in an empowering way, we may perform exponentially better at work. Increased awareness of the assumptions that are fuelling how we feel about ourselves and how we perceive the world may also help us engage the world with a wiser and wider perspective.
It might also be useful to think of introversion-extroversion not as pure types but as a continuous scale such as height and weight (McAdams, 2017). Grant (2013) shared that ambiverts achieve greater sales productivity and persuasion than extraverts or introverts because they are likely to express sufficient assertiveness and enthusiasm without being overconfident. As such, we can learn to be adaptable, take on new skills and go beyond our comfort zones without becoming too attached to our identities and narratives as introverts.
What are the costs and benefits of your current narrative about yourself?
2. Optimise Your Growth
As an introvert, it is important that we consciously chart our next direction and be aligned with whom we need to be in our new role. Introversion does mean that we need to be aware of possible passivity or detachment and be strategic in navigating our career path. It requires honesty with ourselves on what we need to improve in order to be equally exceptional at the next level. We want to avoid occurrence of the Peter Principle where we might find ourselves promoted to a level of incompetence. It is simply not enough to excel in our current job, we need to demonstrate that we have the qualities required in the position that we desire.
Another point to note when working on our areas of improvement is that 95% of people think that they are self aware but only 5% actually are (Eurich, 2003). Seeking feedback from trusted others or taking on validated assessments to discover our blindspots, re-examine our belief systems and reframe our challenges may lead to exponential growth.
As we go about optimising our growth, it is important that we know ourselves well and strategize how best to do so. Recognize that there are indeed certain workplace training and modalities that might specifically work better for introverts or specifically for yourself. For example, when it comes to enhancing creativity and performance, O’Connor, Gardiner, & Watson (2016) revealed that relaxation training such as those focusing on opening the mind and removing mental barriers are better for introverts whereas ideation skills training that is focused on idea generation may be more effective for extraverts.
Whom do you need to be and what skills do you need to master in order to achieve your goals?
3. Harness Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence can be understood as a set of competencies that are measurable and learnable (Freedman, 2019). Instead of pondering where we stand on the introversion/extraversion scale, it might be more useful to assess where we stand on these competencies and what we can harness in order to improve our life outcomes. After all, EQ is said to be a greater determinant than IQ.
It is the understanding that emotions drive transformations and that harnessing emotions effectively will enable us to gain insight and energy. As introverts do not actively seek social attention, practising emotional intelligence will help us perform better as we are more attuned to the goals that are aligned with our values and actively engage our intrinsic motivation. We will then be able to be more driven and enthusiastic in our commitments. We will also increase the likelihood that we will take action and remedy anything that is unsatisfactory in our lives.
When we can navigate our emotions well, we are able to tap into our creativity, resilience and adaptability instead of operating in the fight/flight/freeze/fawn survival mode. When we increase empathy, we are able to persuade and collaborate with greater influence in our communities.
Being emotionally intelligent means that we recognise the importance of every emotion. We acknowledge that every emotion has an important message for us, as such we are more likely to pay attention when boundaries are crossed and be assertive where necessary.
How might the practice of emotional intelligence change your life outcomes?
While we recognise that this may be a world where extraversion is a highly prized quality, we are also increasingly noticing major changes in the world. Introverts around the world are redefining what introversion means and demonstrating the strengths that come from within. Apart from assessing whether we agree or disagree, we can also look for insights the next time we come across new information about introverts. Only then can we continue to re-examine ourselves, seek growth and harness the energy to create new possibilities in our lives.
Ancowitz, N. (2010), A giant step backward for introverts. Psychology Today,
Ashton, M. C., Lee, K., & Paunonen, S. V. (2002). What is the central feature of extraversion? Social attention versus reward sensitivity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(1), 245–252. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52
Buchanan, R. D. (1994). The development of the minnesota multiphasic personality inventory. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 30(2), 148-161. doi:10.1002/1520- 6696(199404)30:2<148::AID-JHBS2300300204>3.0.CO;2-9
Eurich, T. (2003). Insight: The power of self-awareness in a self-deluded world.
Freedman, Joshua. (2019). At the heart of leadership: How to get results with emotional intelligence.
Fudjack, Sara L., "Amidst a culture of noise silence is still golden : a sociocultural historical analysis of the pathologization of introversion" (2013). Masters Thesis, Smith College, Northampton, MA. https://scholarworks.smith.edu/theses/581
Grant, Adam. (2013). Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal: The Ambivert Advantage. Psychological science. 24. 10.1177/0956797612463706
Holmes, A. J., Lee, P. H., Hollinshead, M. O., Bakst, L., Roffman, J. L., Smoller, J. W., & Buckner, R. L. (2012). Individual differences in amygdala-medial prefrontal anatomy link negative affect, impaired social functioning, and polygenic depression risk. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 32(50), 18087–18100. https://www.jneurosci.org/content/jneuro/32/50/18087.full.pdf
Kaufman, S. B. (2014) Will the real introverts please stand up? Scientific American. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/will-the-real-introverts-please-stand-up/
Lucas, R. E., Diener, E., Grob, A., Suh, E. M., & Shao, L. (2000). Cross-cultural evidence for the fundamental features of extraversion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(3), 452–468. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2062
McAdams, D. (2017, January 12). The two kinds of stories we tell about ourselves [Interview by E. Smith]. https://ideas.ted.com/the-two-kinds-of-stories-we-tell-about-ourselves/
Margolis, S., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2020). Experimental manipulation of extraverted and introverted behavior and its effects on well-being. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(4), 719–731. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000668
O’Connor, Peter & Gardiner, Elliroma & Watson, Chloe. (2016). Learning to relax versus learning to ideate: Relaxation-focused creativity training benefits introverts more than extraverts. Thinking Skills and Creativity. 21. 10.1016/j.tsc.2016.05.008.
Sun, J., Harris, K., & Vazire, S. (2020). Is well-being associated with the quantity and quality of social interactions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(6), 1478–1496. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000272
Zelenski, J. M., Whelan, D. C., Nealis, L. J., Besner, C. M., Santoro, M. S., & Wynn, J. E. (2013). Personality and affective forecasting: trait introverts underpredict the hedonic benefits of acting extraverted. Journal of personality and social psychology, 104(6), 1092–1108. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032281