Building a Thoughtful Workplace

When we talk about building a thoughtful workplace culture today, diversity inevitably comes up. Diversity of gender, race, age, and experience—these are all, rightly, top-line facets of the conversation. One important aspect of diversity that is not as frequently discussed, however, is our temperament—introversion and extroversion—which shapes how we interact with ourselves and with others.

As two introverts who often came to head with the extrovert mentality championed in our past workplaces, we felt a sense of relief and validation when Kate Earle shared with us a term for the tension we felt as introverts at work: we’re all part of an extrovert organizational model. Kate, Chief Learning Officer at the Quiet Leadership Institute (QLI), made it clear in her interview below that personality needs to be part the process when constructing thoughtful workplace cultures that can break down norms and encompass different perspectives. Without that consciousness, we fall back on this extrovert organizational model that doesn’t benefit any of us, whether introvert, extrovert, or in-between ambivert.

Jiayi Ying: Ok, so we have to ask this question: Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

Kate Earle: I always thought of myself as someone who’s a little bit more in-between these two styles, which we call an ambivert—someone who flexes both as an introvert and an extrovert as needed. What I’ve learned over my tenure with the Quiet Leadership Institute is that I’ve actually become more introverted over time.

JY: Something that Quiet talks a lot about is this notion of the extrovert ideal, which most workplaces adopt. What is the extrovert ideal?

KE: The extrovert ideal is prevalent in Corporate America. There is a bias towards being bold, being brash, being outspoken, being energetic—being someone who really stands out from the crowd. We see it in how brands represent themselves—Nike and “Just Do It,” for example, or Target with its bright red emblem that people are striving towards and are identifying the organization by.

It shows up very prevalently in leadership development. Very often, the person who speaks up more in a meeting, who is more vocal, who is more likely to attend happy hours after work—who just has a more visible presence—is perceived to be the type of person who makes a good leader. They’re seen as out there; they’re motivational; they’re engaged with people.

While extroverts do make good leaders, there’s a lot of very compelling, quantitative data that suggests that just because someone is outspoken does not automatically mean that they are going to be a better leader.

Introverts make very powerful leaders. They are very good listeners. They are very good at delegating and analyzing a lot of different perspectives. When they do move into leadership roles, they actually outperform their extroverted colleagues in some situations.

The bias for the extrovert ideal is actually overlooking a large percentage of potential future leaders in organizations. By the nature of their personality style, introverts are not really being identified or recognized as people who could really contribute to the ongoing growth and the future development of a company.

Mollie West: The Quiet Leadership Institute’s work is in changing this ideal. How have you built your culture at QLI to support the range of introverts and extroverts on your team?

KE: It’s very much an evolution and a work in progress. We intentionally hire and recruit introverts and extroverts because we believe that mix of style is very critical to the success of an organization.

We do our best to be conscious of what that style means when it comes to how people work and how they communicate. For example, our CEO, Paul Scibetta, is a very strong extrovert. Part of the neurobiology behind being an extrovert is how dopamine gets triggered in your brain in response to stimulation. Extroverts need more stimulation in order to get that dopamine rush. They seek out high stimulating scenarios, whether that be socializing or thinking out loud or brainstorming.

Paul will often say, “Hey, I’m having a dopamine rush. I’m an extrovert. I need to talk my ideas out loud, so bear with me.”

On the other end of this spectrum, we have Susan Cain who is very much an introvert. She needs and asks for time to reflect, to think, and to deliberate on decisions that we ask her to make or opinions we ask her to give. It gives all of us a way to say, “Hey, I need a moment here. This is how I need to communicate with you right now.”

MW: What are some other ways of working that can contribute to a culture that values both introverts and extroverts?

KE: I don’t think it will be a surprise to anyone that we are very meeting-heavy work culture. In fact, a lot of data indicates just how much time we spend in meetings and how rapidly that time has increased over the past several years.

We look to meetings as the primary way that people collaborate and make decisions. The way most meetings are structured is that a meeting gets scheduled and there’s a whole host of people who might be invited.

You show up for the meeting, and sometimes a good percentage of those people don’t even really understand what the agenda is for the meeting. You are immediately diving into a topic and being asked to share opinions, make decisions, share feedback, share data, and comment on other people’s points of view and perspectives in the moment, on the spot, with no or very little preparation.

Extroverts excel in this space. They are comfortable speaking up; they actually get a lot of energy out of the social interactions that occur in a meeting. The challenge of this dynamic is that there’s actually almost zero correlation between those who talk the most and the quality of the ideas that are presented or the decisions that are made.

Introverts who are in those meetings have not had time to think about, process, or prepare for what’s being discussed. They are being put on the spot to share their thoughts in a way that they may not be prepared to do. In this situation, you are not getting the best out of your introverts to shift this dynamic.

JY: And you’re not getting the best out of your extroverts either, it sounds.

KE: Yes. Let people know what this meeting is about in advance. Let them know what you want to discuss and what decisions you are looking to make. Whether they’re introverts or extroverts, give them some time to think about it and to prepare.

MW: So we’ve talked about the organizational level and the group level. What about individually? Is there something that all of us can do on our own to better support ourselves?

KE:  Probably one of the most powerful things we can all do is to increase our own awareness of our style as introverts, extroverts, or ambiverts—and to understand what that really means for your preferences and your behaviors.

When you have that deep, deep understanding of self, it gives you the courage and the conviction to be honest with others about what works and what doesn’t work for you and about who you are and why you perform the way you do. It also gives you a greater appreciation and sensitivity towards differences. Just because someone is acting differently or communicating differently than you doesn’t mean they don’t have a great deal of value to contribute.

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