The Social Introvert: Rocking the Job Interview

Dear Sophia,

I was wondering if you had any comment about introversion and job interviews. It seems that being introverted is often viewed as a liability, and introverts are often viewed with suspicion in job interview situations.

On one interview, I was invited to meet staff at a party, and I instead wanted to visit the facility library. I did not get the job. It seems like when it comes to knowing what to say in pressure situations, the extrovert would have the advantage.

–Job Hunter

Dear Job Hunter:

To an extent, you’re right: extroverts are at somewhat of an advantage in job interviews because they can be better at selling themselves and putting on a show. The good news, though, is that a study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that while people expect extroverts to energize a team and make things happen, it turns out that extroverts often don’t perform at the anticipated high level. Measuring their long-term performance against that of neurotic people, researchers concluded that the neurotics got more accomplished.

(I know, I know…introversion and neuroticism are not the same things. The researchers compared the two because “extroverts have historically been the people who are at the top of the status hierarchy and neurotics are the people who are at the bottom of the status hierarchy.” Still, we do share with neurotics the ability to put our heads down and get stuff done, and so the research seems relevant.)

Of course, this research doesn’t help introverted job hunters unless hiring managers know about it and factor it into their decision-making. We can only hope that happens as information about introversion gets more widely disseminated.

But what of your experience, Job Hunter?

We could put an “introvert power” spin on this situation and say that you were showing this hiring manager who you are, take it or leave it. We could even say that if the hiring manager didn’t appreciate your interest in the library, maybe this workplace wasn’t a good fit anyway.

However.

It does seem possible that you misunderstood the invitation/command performance. I doubt that when the hiring manager (HM) invited you to meet the staff, it was intended as a strictly social event. The HM might have wanted to get input from other staff members and see how you fit into the corporate culture.

At the same time, you could have taken advantage of the event to gather more information on the job and organization.

I consulted Jennifer Kahnweiler, whose book about introverts in the workplace include The Introverted Leader and Quiet Influence, about your question. She agreed that there was a lot of information you could have gleaned from mingling with prospective colleagues. “Use your introvert strength of preparation to research the key players and their background as well as the hot company issues,” she suggested. “You can also prepare questions and talking points that give you more ‘below the surface’ data about what people like and don’t like about their organization and their jobs.”

Introverts are great listeners; we’re good at drawing people out; and we’re often a lot more comfortable listening than talking. So you can bring those strengths to the party and ask people, for example, why they stay at the company, what the most interesting thing they’re working on at the moment is, or what they find challenging about their jobs and the company.

Kahnweiler suggests you plan some talking points about yourself as well so you can tackle the chit-chat without a lot of humminahummina. What do you want to say about your strengths, your interests, your background, or how you spend your leisure time? Think all this through ahead of time so you don’t feel like you’re on the spot if you’re suddenly dropped in a semi-social situation during a job interview.

I’m an advocate of owning our introversion and selling ourselves on its merits, but sometimes you need to push beyond your comfort zone and get in the door before you can show off what an introvert can do.

Do you have a question for Sophia Dembling? Send her an email!

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  • Donna Joseph

    I am an introvert and interviews are not events I look forward to although preparing helps. I also, over the years, have come to view these situations as “getting to know you” ones which puts me a bit more at ease as it is a bit less one-sided which in reality, both parties are making judgments about the other. The party meeting does sound stressful although I’ve gone to events such as these on my own, not knowing anyone and had a great time.

  • Alex Ellsworth

    As an extrovert in an extroverted workplace, I can see the problems on both sides here… We have had a couple of introverted people join our department at different times. Even though they were perfectly nice and competent, they had a really negative effect on camaraderie and teamwork. They never came out to socialize with the rest of the staff, so we never really felt we knew them. It was like having a hole in the middle of the office, very uncomfortable. I’m sure it was difficult for them as well. Perhaps this is why hiring managers place so much emphasis on candidates being “a good fit for the company culture,” though I can see how that could also be unfair.

    • LiznNM

      As an introvert in a management position, I’m going to ask why does it even matter if your introverts go out with the group and socialize? You said yourself they were competent and nice. Teamwork should be felt in the workplace not hanging out at bars on a Wed evening. It’s no different than if they were working mothers and couldn’t socialize due to having young children at home. So like you mentioned, I do see it as unfair– almost discriminatory and a “good ole workers club.” Business is business and socializing is socializing. If a company is well run, they will manage and harvest the positives that both introverts and extroverts have to offer.

      • Alex Ellsworth

        I understand your viewpoint perfectly. Indeed, it fits the current American zeitgeist. There was an excellent NYT article about it last week that delved into the topic. As it mentioned in the opening, “Once, work was a major source of friendships. Now, it is a more transactional place.” http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/opinion/sunday/adam-grant-friends-at-work-not-so-much.html?_r=0

        Well, I guess I’m out of step with the rest of America. There are two reasons. First, I am a little uncomfortable around people I don’t know well and was raised Texan, with a level of forced friendliness and indirectness. It takes a certain amount of work to keep that up, and it can be tiring. I can’t really be myself or let my guard down. But having coworkers who are friends, they know my personality, family background, etc. I can admit something like, “Sorry, I just got really overwhelmed and flustered there.” rather than trying to keep up a brave face of “professionalism.”

        The second reason is particular. I’m gay, single, unattached and live in Korea. Expat life gives a sort of equality or parity – we’re all mostly single and unattached. Without family and other intervening obligations, it’s kind of like an enjoyable extension of college life and friendships. Friendships are deep and important. They’re all we’ve got. I tried going back to the United States, but I found it very hard to connect with people. As you said, my coworkers felt that “business is business.” And everyone around me was busy with spouses, children, parents, and endless obligations.”Friendship” was reduced to sharing a coffee once a month. How could I build a “family” of friends under these conditions? It was a very lonely and alienating experience. I ended up going abroad again four years ago, and I’ve never looked back. It’s been fourteen years now in total. Yay!

        • Bryan C.

          I believe you pointed out the difference. While some see the workplace as pure business, others (like yourself) are looking also for friendship. You should be careful with that, mixing private and work business. Introverts (like me) are very unlikely to do that, and with that avoid all drama that comes with it when it could go horribly wrong. For friends I would go to places where you can find people with similar interest (hobbies etc.), actually.. I wouldnt.. I would be sitting home, but I dont think you would mind 😉

          • Alex Ellsworth

            Well, I mean, as a sort of “extroverted introvert,” where else would I make friends? It’s just like when you’re a kid: you make friends with your classmates at school. But what if you transfer to a new school where everyone ignores you because they’ve got their own friends off somewhere else? School is the main part of your life, and going to school would becoming boring, lonely, and miserable.

            Plus, it’s hard to feel truly comfortable or at ease with people when you don’t really know them. A culture of workplace friendships allows people to let their guards down and be genuine, and this helps them to function at their best. They can admit strengths and weaknesses candidly and reach out for help or share ideas without worrying that they are being judged. In more impersonal workplaces, there is a pressure to maintain a facade of effortless competency.

          • Bryan C.

            Im not saying dont make friends at workplace. I am very friendly with my coworkers because I like them, they’re smart and I like exchanging ideas with them. But after work is home for me. I do go to business trips etc, but then look more forward to my alone times. I believe Im a bit of an social introvert. But what Im saying is, just be carefull because now work and private can affect eachother. Generally, its smart to keep them seperated.

            About where to find friends? Look for places with your hobbies as activities. Have fun with the activities while having the option to socialize, which should be easier with the obvious in common. Im not an expert, just a tip at hand.

        • pigbitinmad

          I’m definitely on the introverted side, but the problem is not hanging out with co-workers, it’s just that co-workers today seem to be such a$$ Ki$$ing nasty SOBs that I would never want to give them ammunition to use against me when it comes to throwing me under the bus (which, when it happens to you, will play repeatedly in your mind forever like the Zapruder film). You will never trust your co-workers again no matter how sweet and nice they act. In fact, you will want to have something on them so you throw them under the bus first.
          I remember in my parents generation that work sorta resembled WJM on the Mary Tyler Moore show, but that was before all this Benchmarking and metrics and harassment on the part of management.

  • Cory Robertson

    So in the end your advice was to show the interviewer research saying shy people are great, hope they like you anyway, and to just suck it up and go to the metaphorical party anyway. Helpful stuff, thanks.

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  • Mark

    I’m very introverted but have an excellent record at interview (and for project management positions!) I think there is plenty of things that play to the strengths of an introvert. Interviewers are looking for specific things and won’t always ask the right questions to let you show you have these qualities and experience; being able to get a good read on the interviewers, figuring out where their questions are coming from and addressing that rather than just generically selling yourself is critical and something introverts will be good at. Interviews are also one-on-one or two-on-one stations where introverts do their best.

    Introverts are often seen as unable to be strong leaders or to manage tough situations. Knowing this, come up with (and use) competency examples to show you can manage these situations well. I recently failed to get an offer in a final round interview for similar reasons but having worked for an organisation where big talking extroversion was prized and been penalised for my introversion, I took the rejection on these grounds as a sign the company was not a good fit for me anyway.

    • Machteld De Coninck

      I often get told i am “too nice” and am perceived as being too soft. I have observed people expressions of misplaced pitty cause they make The assumption i cant handle a certain situation and they could. What it really is, is that i would nurture people to get the best long term result and that i would start my observations from the start to avoid anyone falling off the boat if it can be prevented. I would pass on my expectations and provide learning opportunities from the start. This has allowed me to make tough decisions with integrity, confidence , but i also had solid evidence backing up my decisions… Something those same people could not find or get together. I am more sure of the value this can bring, and i think i could finally stand up for this approach if i were to go to an interview and explain with confidence that this can be of benefit… But i fear it will take an introverter interviewer to believe in my sort of leadership…

    • LiznNM

      A good example of why we need to educate corporations and workplaces that introverts have their place and can also be effective leaders and managers. Many of the top CEOs like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are known introverts. What a sad place it would have been if they were not able to lead because of other’s incorrect perceptions.

  • CJ

    They can be uncomfortable, but I think situations like that can be useful, too. What a great opportunity to innocently ask, “So, do you all get together like this often?” If it’s a super social environment – with lots of “mandatory fun” – that might factor into your decision about working there. And you might spot a few kindred spirits in the process.

  • This is a really great topic. Most interviews are scheduled in advance, so almost by default, introverts who like to prepare have an advantage, because they can spend time in advance really polishing their selling points. I also personally know that my ability to listen in interviews has gotten me jobs. I listen to find out the real world problems the manager is facing right now and focus my answers on why I am able to work toward solving those problems.

    If you are an introvert going into an interview, practice is your best friend. And in fact, practicing out-loud, with a stranger, may be the single best investment you can ever make in yourself. You can do the job, but you might need to grow your communication skills in the very formalized style of job interviews.

  • William Charles Rawe

    This is a great article. I had never considered the term “social introvert,” but I think that’s exactly what I am. I work as a corporate trainer and make time to speak with everyone in the department every day. But then I love getting back to my desk for research, study, writing, and introspection. It’s the ideal job for me. I also gleaned some important tips from this article, especially in having talking points ready for more social interactions, which inevitably happen with my job.

  • Rich Day

    I have been a manager in the past which of course involved hirinig people. I always thought there really wasn’t anthing I did more important than the decision of who I chose to hire. Sophia made the comment that perhaps Job Hunter misread what the invitation to meet the staff was about, and I think she is right about that. When I found I had a higher level of interest in someone, I would always then suggest they meet the rest of the staff, but unlike this interviewer, I didn’t have the staff meet them en mass as a next step, it was a one on one meeting with individual managers. I did this because I had interest in the candidate, but I also valued the input of my fellow managers. This may in fact have been the best job on the entire planet for this guy, or it might not have been a fit, but I feel you have to be open to find out for yourself.

    • Very interesting, Rich. I wonder if there are people who prefer one form of meeting the staff over another. Lots of one-on-ones also sounds kind of intimidating so I’m not sure which I would opt for, given a choice.

      • Rich Day

        That’s also a good point, Sophia. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed my own process very much, but we didn’t subject everyone to these, only those we narrowed down to. It might indeed have been intimidating.

        • Bryan C.

          Did you tell them you did it because you had a higher level of interest in them? And did you explain who the fellow managers were? Because that would make it less intimidating, I would imagine. I would take it as: “I want to hire you, but I also value the opinions of my fellow managers”. Which I find respectable and irrefutable in an good company, imho.

          • Rich Day

            Exactly how it was presented Bryan. And add to that, that we felt it was important that the applicant had the opportunity to get to know us better by meeting others too. As important as the decision was to us, it was even more so for the applicant.