You Can Stop Faking It: It’s OK to Be an Introvert

    The fact that you’re reading this on IT Business Edge means you’re probably in IT. And that means you’re probably an introvert. I’m here to tell you it’s time, once and for all, to recognize that that’s OK.

    Actually, I’m just a messenger here to convey that sentiment, one that I took away from one of the most enjoyable and fascinating interviews I’ve conducted in over two decades in this line of work. The interview was with Dr. Laurie Helgoe, a psychologist, avowed introvert, and author of the book, “Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength.”

    For starters, I asked Helgoe why it is that IT people tend to be introverts. She said it’s because the work of an IT professional suits an introvert especially well:

    You get to interface with technology, not necessarily people. I think it’s a common misunderstanding that introverts don’t like people. People are one of the most simulating kinds of input we can have—social input is very stimulating. And introverts have a lot of internal mental activity—we are sensitive to external stimulation, and respond more. The bells and whistles go off in our brains more than in the case of an extrovert, who will actually seek out and want more of that kind of stimulation. We like to take our people in smaller doses, and with longer pauses in between. So engaging with technology is more manageable, in terms of stimulation—that’s one attraction. And IT professionals often get to work alone, although the walls have come down and we have a cubicle culture, and a very team-oriented culture in the workplace, which actually can undermine work. It’s sad to see, sometimes, that the workplace is undermining work. So I’m really thrilled that there’s a discussion going on more and more now about how we can bring back some balance.

    Speaking of that team-oriented culture, I noted that IT organizations, like just about every other organization, tend to value people whom they see as “team players.” So I asked Helgoe if there’s any danger that being labeled as an introvert creates a handicap in being seen by the organization as a team player. She said if the label is harmful, then the workplace is harmful, if that’s the reductionistic way that introversion is being looked at:

    If that happens, it’s based on a lot of misconceptions. There’s research that shows that teams do better when there’s a mix of introverts and extroverts, and that introverts are more effective leaders of proactive employees. When you have a creative, energetic work force, an introvert is going to draw out that energy better, it seems, than an extrovert, who will do better with a more passive team. So the mix is crucial for a healthy workplace.

    Helgoe mentioned in that context that she’s going to be speaking at a diversity conference, and that there would be a focus on this issue that’s challenging certain assumptions, like the need to have a “networking lunch” on the conference agenda. She said introverts are going to want to sneak out during that time, which isn’t a bad thing, she said, because that sneaking-out time and thinking and reflecting on things can be a very creative, important time.

    OK, but no doubt there’s a lot to be said for networking. For one thing, there are any number of surveys that show that networking tops the list of factors that help people find jobs. So I asked Helgoe if introverts are handicapped in that regard. Her response:

    If we look at networking in the way that kind of raises introverts’ blood pressure, this idea that we have to be glad-handers with everybody in the room, that’s really not the way it normally works anyway. Maybe we can use a richer language to describe networking—there are a lot of introvert consultants out there, helping to broaden that view. We know how to connect with people one-on-one. We want to be a little bit more deliberate about making contacts, or using the contacts we have. It can be a downside for us that we are pretty self-contained, and we like to do things ourselves, which is great. But sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “Hey, can you mention me? Can you put in a good word for me?” When we have those contacts—and introverts have maybe fewer, but very strong contacts—I think it’s a matter sometimes of drawing on those. I have my “token extroverts” who are great about promoting me, which is much better than me promoting me. That really works well, because it’s much better having somebody else saying, “She’s great” than me saying “I’m great.” Humility can work well, as long as we have somebody that’s tooting our horn.

    I mentioned to Helgoe that the very fact that she had written a book to empower introverts suggests that introverts are in need of empowerment, and I asked her for her thoughts on that. She said it was a good question, but a tricky one:

    I had to be clear that I wasn’t writing a book for “impaired introverts,” or talking to people that I think have a disadvantage, necessarily. But what is true about society, and research has borne this out, is that there is an introvert culture clash in our society, compared to others like China and Japan. When you’re introverted, there’s a lot of social pressure to be something that you’re not. We’re human, and that can automatically undermine our power. The way we keep that back is to not buy in, and to recognize that half of our society is comprised of introverts. But in order to not buy in we have to be conscious. For me, that consciousness happened when I said out loud, “Oh my God, I’m an introvert, and I don’t like the way I’ve been leading my life.” It was such a subtle but powerful shift to say, “OK, that’s fine, I don’t have to like this. Maybe sometimes I have to do things I don’t like, but I don’t have to like it.” And I can seek out situations that draw on my strengths instead of push me to stretch beyond my comfort zone. We talk a lot about working outside our comfort zone. Well, you know what? Sometimes it’s just fine to stand tall in your comfort zone.

    I asked Helgoe if introverts are handicapped by the stereotype that they’re somewhat meek and reclusive, compared to the stereotype of extroverts being vibrant and engaging. She said she was glad I brought that up:

    Sometimes our measures of introversion and extroversion use language that describes extroverts as vibrant, energetic, outgoing, gregarious; and then, rather than using language that describes introverts, we use the negation of the extrovert descriptors. An example of this is “energetic.” I’ve seen in an assessment tool in which the opposite of that is “lethargic,” which was ascribed to introverts. So it’s like, extroversion is the thing, and introversion is the lack of the thing. There’s another tradition, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is better at this. It gives introversion its own language: reflective, contemplative, even words to describe happiness—introverts are not as into the revved-up version of happiness that we focus on in our society. Calm, tranquil, peaceful, relaxed are also very positive feeling states that have a more introverted character to them. So there are a lot of adjectives to describe introversion that are rich and positive. But if we keep just seeing introversion as the lack of extroversion, we’re not going to get to that.

    Following up on the social pressure that introverts feel to be something that they’re not, I asked Helgoe if introverts sometimes, or even often, try to fake it and pass as extroverts. She responded with a “yes,” and said she could even relate to that herself:

    I don’t think we do it consciously, like saying, “I want to be an extrovert.” Because actually, most of us want to be introverts—we like the way we are. But there is this idea that “I’m supposed to be, and people need me to be, this other way.” So we do feel that pressure, and feel that culture clash, and how do we deal with that? A lot of us introverts become kind of “bilingual.” We have to learn how to play extrovert—I call those who do that “accessible introverts.” The problem with that is sometimes we give the message that we’re open and receptive, and yes, come and talk my ear off, when that’s not really what we want. There’s another kind of introvert who just decides to disconnect more—what I call a “shadow dweller.” That’s the kind of introvert who will just be more reclusive, or else be part of kind of an introvert sub-culture, where it’s like, “You think I’m worried? I’m going to go for it. I’ll dress in black and I’ll take on that persona, and I’m kind of free.” There’s a downside and an upside to both kinds of orientations. I think accessible introverts wish we could pull off being a little less imposed upon. And the downside for a shadow dweller is that they can feel alienated from society, whereas accessible introverts can feel alienated from themselves. It doesn’t have to be either way. That’s what my book is about: how we change our lens and how we see introverts, because they’re all over. And how we respect it in others, and in ourselves.

    I’ll share more of my conversation with Helgoe, including her thoughts on the opportunities and challenges introverts face in the hiring process, in a forthcoming post.

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