The office: odd one out

Up to half the workforce have a condition that means they are often overlooked.

Introvert pic goldfishBy Noel O'Hare

They are not always easy to spot in the workplace. Some keep a low profile by adopting a higher one. They speak up at meetings, take part in tea-room chitchat and attend social gatherings. Some can be very convincing.

Yet often there is what psychologists call “behavioural leakage”, when their true selves are exposed through unconscious body langu age, a failure to make eye contact or a subtle attempt to shift attention away from themselves.

In the 1960s the famous research psychologist Hans Eysenck devised a test, still used today, to unmask them. Take any group of adults and place lemon juice on their tongues. The ones who salivate more are introverts.

Between a third and a half of human beings are estimated to be introverts, but you’d never guess that from the way most workplaces operate.

From open-plan offices, the structure of meetings, promotion and career prospects, the world of work is designed for, and often by, extroverts. Little wonder, then, that many introverts try to disguise their true natures by passing themselves off as extroverts, sometimes at a cost to their wellbeing.

As US journalist Jonathan Rauch has observed, “In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic.”

Introverts are described with words like "guarded," "loner," "reserved," "taciturn," "self-contained," "private"—narrow, ungenerous words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality.”

To be quiet is often to be overlooked, says Jonathan Rauch. “That is a cost to the organisation. “If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder, more forceful people always carry the day. It would mean an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones get squashed.”

Yet studies in group dynamics suggest that this is exactly what happens, says Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

“Introverts prefer to listen rather than talk and think before they speak. They are not antisocial; they are “differently social,” she says. They have little gift for small talk but enjoying talking in depth about subjects that matter to them. Introverts are not necessarily more creative than extroverts but they are dominant in creative fields because they “prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation”.

Introverts are wired differently to extroverts: they are more aroused by external stimuli (hence the lemon-juice test).

So how can introverts succeed in an extrovert world? Seek out the type of work you feel most comfortable doing and care about, says Susan Cain. “Introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of the work they consider important, people they love or anything they value highly.”

Ask Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Helen Clark or countless others.

For every high-flying introvert, though, there are a million others frustrated that their skills are undervalued and their ideas overlooked.

“Introverts are to extroverts what . . . women were to men in the 1950s – second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talents,” says Susan Cain.


This article is from the September 2012 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.