How to Navigate the Job Interview (and the Job) as an Introvert

Don Tennant

Last week I wrote about a fascinating conversation I’d had with Dr. Laurie Helgoe, a psychologist, author and avowed introvert, about some of the challenges introverts confront in our extroverted society. Given the preponderance of introverts in the IT profession, I found Helgoe’s insights not only illuminating for people who are attracted to IT, but too important for any to be left on the cutting-room floor.

So I want to pick up where our conversation was left in my earlier post: the job interview. I wondered what an introvert should do in a job interview if he’s asked whether he’s an introvert or an extrovert. Given the stereotypes some people have formed about introverts, isn’t an introvert going to be reluctant to respond to that question truthfully? Helgoe said she hoped not:

I think a truthful response might mean elaborating on it, not just using the word, because we’re still learning and filling out the picture of what that word means. As an introvert, I might say something like this:

“I’m an introvert in the sense that I love tackling problems, and I'm good at staying focused until the job's done. I don't require a lot of entertainment or outside prompting to stay motivated. On a team, I like to take in what everybody is saying and think about it—and then offer perspective. I don't have to be in the limelight, so I can help others without worrying about how I look or how much credit I'm getting. When I lead, I'm good at channeling the ideas and excitement of people on the team, and at getting buy-in from everyone, including quieter members who can sometimes be overlooked.”

So you fill it out a little more specifically, because we’re all a mix. If we just throw the word out there, we have no idea how that person is interpreting that.

I asked Helgoe what advice she might have for hiring managers in a typical business setting. Are extroverts preferable for some positions, and introverts preferable for others? She said it’s possible to make some generalities:

Introverts are going to do well in leadership positions where you have a proactive staff—the introvert has the skill to be able to bring out what’s best in people, and to listen and help. A friend of mine who’s a government relations director says that as an introvert, she is very good at getting buy-in. The introvert knows that just because somebody’s not talking doesn’t mean that person necessarily supports you. You have to go a step further and get that buy-in. Because as introverts, sometimes we’re quiet, and we’re secretly opposed to something. So there’s that quality of being attuned that an introvert can bring. The research shows that an extrovert is going to do better in a leadership position where there are passive employees who really need a lot of direction—somebody who’s just going to say, “OK, let’s do it this way.”

Typically, there are certain kinds of positions that require a lot of meeting and greeting, and extroverts are probably going to be more comfortable with that. But I’m even a little cautious about saying that, because a lot of very socially savvy people are introverted, but they just need their breaks to step out and refuel. I think we can say that people who require a lot of solitude for their work—the architect in the back room who has to draw up plans and really focus on things—for that person, introversion is very helpful. To the extent that a person has to go out and do a lot of PR, the extroverted person may have some advantage there. There are some generalities, but I’m always a little bit cautious because if the work is something the person is passionate about, that person can tolerate some of the parts of the work that he or she doesn’t like as much.

So is asking a job candidate whether he considers himself an introvert or an extrovert a legitimate question to ask? Helgoe said it’s not only legitimate, but healthy, depending on the interviewer’s intention:

I think so, if the intention is to understand how that person works at his or her best, and to get at what that person has to bring to the company. If it’s some kind of a “rule out” criterion, then that’s a problem. Personality diversity is extremely helpful and important in the workplace, so I think the conversation is a healthy one, or it should be a healthy one.

Expanding the conversation a bit, I noted that a lot has been written over the years about there being a disproportionately high number of people in the IT field with Asperger’s Syndrome. I cited, as an example, a Wired article that referred to it as “geek syndrome.” I asked Helgoe if there are varying degrees of introversion, and if so, whether Asperger’s is one of those degrees. She said she would treat the two separately:

Introversion, at least in the way I talk about it, and the way it has traditionally been talked about, is a mental-health-neutral concept. It says more about the way we process information. But we do find that there is a correlation between introverts and certain disorders, and extroverts and certain disorders. Introverts are more likely, particularly in our society, to be depressed, and extroverts are more likely to have a narcissistic disorder or alcoholism—mental health problems associated with impulse control issues. I don’t have specific data on the overlap with Asperger’s, but I would think it’s fair to say that introversion may be more correlated with that [compared to the overlap between Asperger’s and extroversion]. But I think it’s very important to keep the two separate. There can be somebody, say, a monk, who’s an introvert and loves being alone, and is very able to embrace that lifestyle because of his introversion, and does the world a lot of good because of that. And then there may be somebody who has Asperger’s and really has a hard time navigating the social world, and is also introverted. So even the extremes of the continuum—the same with extroversion—you might be a little more vulnerable to difficulties, but you also may be brilliant to the extent that you can work with that.

I asked Helgoe what, in her view, is the greatest misperception about introverts that needs to be corrected. She said it’s hard to choose, because there are a lot of them. But she settled on one:

I think the greatest misperception about introverts is this idea that introversion is a “lack” of something. When you look at brain scans that show what happens in response to stimuli, actually there’s more going on inside an introvert brain. There’s more activity—the lights are on. To the extent that we are kind of a “what you see is what you get” society, we have very little time to look beneath the surface, and we can too easily dismiss introverts, and miss the richness that they bring to the world. So we need to start changing our language and our vision to see introverts [for what they really are]. And it’s not always easy, because a lot of what’s going on is under the surface.

As I noted in my earlier post, Helgoe is the author of the book, “Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength.” So I asked her what’s the one takeaway that she most wants introverts and extroverts to get from her book. I loved her response:

I’m an introvert, so I have to think about that. I may be repeating myself, but it would be—knowing that even within themselves, extroverts have an introvert side, too—to stop seeing our society as an extroverted society. If Starbucks wants to survive, it’s going to want a ton of introverts around who want to hang out by themselves in coffee shops. There’s so much introversion around us, and we just need to open our eyes to it.

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