Still waters run deep

The business world favors extroverts. And it’s wrong.

All of us who work on teams have surely faced the existential workplace question: Are you an introvert or an extrovert? We’ve taken the Myers-Briggs test. We’ve thought about how our personality type fits with those around us. As managers, we’ve hemmed and hawed about who is best suited for particular roles, given their personality types. And for those who lean introvert, as I do, we’ve almost certainly been made to feel “less than” on occasion.

Any introvert can tell you that the American workplace is, by and large, an extrovert’s world. As a culture, we tend to lionize extroverts as the “born leaders” among us. More often than not, extroverts run our meetings, creating an environment that disproportionately elicits participation from fellow extroverts and tacitly assumes introverts have little to add. Because the extrovert on the team may appear most willing to get out in front and make the pitch, we often assume the extrovert also has the best ideas about what to say.

Even our definitions of the words introvert and extrovert belie our culture’s value judgments favoring the latter. Most sources point to the Latin origins when defining the word introvert — “turned inward.” Extroverts, by contrast, are often defined as those who gain energy from interacting with others. Based on those definitions, one could conclude that introverts are the anti-social people who live within their own thoughts while extroverts are the magnanimous, engaged ones among us who are connecting with others to change the world.

As someone who tends more toward introvert, I’m here to tell you that your assumptions and value judgments about who knows what are worth questioning. The introverts in your business may be your most valuable overlooked asset. They may have more good ideas than you can imagine. If you create the right conditions, they may be eager to share them.

In her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” Susan Cain suggests that we undervalue those who don’t fight for airtime, missing the fact that they are often the best listeners and observers, that many of them have powerfully creative minds and innovative ideas.

She also points out that introverts comprise at least one-third of the population. That fact alone should give us pause when we consider its application internally — in our work teams — and externally, among our customer base, stakeholders and colleagues.

Are you sure that the go-getter extrovert on your team is the prime candidate to connect with the one-third of your external constituents who are introverts? Consider further that you don’t necessarily know who the true introverts are out there because many of us have learned to “pass” as extroverts in the business world, heaving a sigh of relief when we leave a networking reception and get into a silent car.

All this is to suggest we pause and think differently about the person who observes quietly during our next meeting — that we create a workplace in which that person can share what is happening inside her head. Because she might just change our work for the better in ways we can’t imagine.

Christine Amer Mayer is president of GAR Foundation, which awards grants to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations in Summit and adjacent counties in the areas of education, arts and arts education, health and social services, and civic and nonprofit enhancement.