The Introvert-Extrovert Ideal

By Alex Marino, Staff Writer

screenshot-122“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s that I stay with problems longer.” –Albert Einstein

It’s a common misconception that the most productive, effective, innovative, and guiding individuals are outgoing extroverts who can walk into a room full of people and engage in fifty conversations with strangers while drawing stimulating energy into the room through their high-level swagger and outgoing personality. We call this the extrovert ideal, or “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight” (Susan Cain). This social demand is so prevalent that those who are innately introverted tend to force themselves into socially uncomfortable situations that exhaust their inner energy reserves and abandon their true character. Not to worry, introverts, we have a buffet of stimulants ready to help you keep up with the extroverts. Now, I won’t be a hypocrite and advise anyone to avoid stimulants to help you socialize, but I will advise that you start looking internally and identifying which side of this spectrum you actually fall into.

To start, I’d like to help you clear up the identification of what it means to be an extrovert versus an introvert, as many people wrongly correlate introvertedness with loners who sit in solitude and read Aristotle on a Saturday night. Don’t get me wrong, this does in fact happen from time to time, but there is so much more to consider. I’d like to refer to author Susan Cain’s recent work titled “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” to define these personality ideals:

If you’re an introvert…you have the power of persistence, the tenacity to solve complex problems, and the clear-sightedness to avoid pitfalls that trip others up. You enjoy relative freedom from the temptations of superficial prizes like money and status. Indeed, your biggest challenge may be to fully harness your strengths. You may be so busy trying to appear like a zestful, reward-sensitive extrovert that you undervalue your own talents, or feel underestimated by those around you. But when you’re focused on a project that you care about, you probably find that your energy is boundless.

If you’re an extrovert…reward sensitivity motivates [you] to pursue goals like sex and money, social status and influence. It prompts [you] to climb ladders and reach for faraway branches in order to gather life’s choicest fruits. [You’ve] been found to have greater economic, political, and hedonistic ambitions than introverts; even [your] sociability is a function of reward-sensitivity…[and] extroverts socialize because human connection is inherently gratifying.

Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling…extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.

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Identifying whether you’re innately an extrovert or introvert is important when developing effective approaches to managing individuals in a global context. Cain’s study emphasizes that effective leaders influence their teams by learning how to motivate them and create an environment conducive to innovative thought and action processes. Cultures, of course, vary in style and traditions, but keep in mind that individuals everywhere possess innately different personalities that demand specific environments to draw out their highest potential. This study is in reaction to modern business culture’s demand for extrovert ideals, and the ill-conceived high regard for extrovertedness in all high-level business environments.

Considering that any room anywhere in the world is statistically likely to be filled with a mix of both extroverts and introverts, new data from leading psychologists suggests that group brainstorming sessions are ineffective and inefficient at creating an intellectually stimulating environment. The study identifies three failures in this setting: first, “social loafing: in a group, some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. The second is production blocking: only one person can talk or produce an idea at once, while the other group members are forced to sit passively. And the third is evaluation apprehension, meaning the fear of looking stupid in front of one’s peers.”  When people find themselves in these forcibly awkward situations they will either refrain from contributing, or, even worse, wait for everyone to come up with ideas and then conform. According to Cain, the same study revealed that “the conformists showed less brain activity in the frontal, decision-making regions and more in the areas of the brain associated with perception. Peer pressure, in other words, is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem.”

How do we avoid stifling productivity or failing to tap into the full potential of our employees and peers? Cain suggests that “we should actively seek out symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships, in which leadership and other tasks are divided according to people’s natural strengths and temperaments…we also need to create settings in which people are free to circulate in a shifting kaleidoscope of interactions, and to disappear into their private workspaces when they want to focus or simply be alone.” I couldn’t agree more, and I would suggest a move away from traditional perceptions that frame a business environment in a prescribed way, ultimately hindering the flourishing of a culture capable of producing differentiated ideas. I’ve never understood why large corporate companies recruit and promote “diversity” and then immediately put new employees through training that molds them into a prescribed standard. This suggests that in many circumstances, diversity promotion is only a face-value marketing ploy. Life-coach and entrepreneur Tony Robbins argues that the most effective leaders, above all else, are those capable of INFLUENCING those around them. But keep in mind that a prerequisite to influence is understanding, and understanding demands listening intently.

Self-identification is the greatest gift you can give to yourself. We live in a globally integrated world, paced at a high-speed level aimed at driving capitalistic competition and promoting superficial ideologies to keep the consumerist mentality driving the wealth accumulation at the top. In such an environment it’s easy to become disconnected from your identity and lost in the demands of external perceptions and expectations. I’m not advocating that you step off the train and go live in solitude in the Amazon jungle, but take some time to discover yourself, and in the long run you’ll have so much more to contribute as a global leader. Ideally, one should seek to learn how to navigate the introvert and extrovert realms depending on the cultural context, referred to as an ambivert, while being internally concrete in our innate energy source. Says Winifred Gallagher: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement.”

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