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What is an introvert? Let Rachel show you what they are and what their typical characteristics may look like in the workplace. She looks at how they recharge their batteries and the value they can bring.
Popular definitions and their impact
If you Google ‘introvert’ I guarantee you’ll get a description including the words ‘shy’ and ‘reticent’ (do try it and see!). I’m here to tell you that these are NOT the major traits of introverts.
Popular and inaccurate definitions like these help to maintain a bias and implies extroversion traits are desirable, whilst introverts are somewhat lacking. But confidence is not related to introversion. In reality, the quiet, thoughtful power we introverts bring to our work is highly valuable; arguably even more so in a Western culture that is set up in favour of extroverted ways of working and thinking. There is no reason why people more inclined to introversion can’t be hugely successful and great leaders, but unless we know the power of our introversion and use it, we may well be overlooked.
Susan Cain argues in her book Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, that western culture is set up for extroverts: success is associated with fast-talking, highly charismatic, sociable leaders who dominate meetings, act quickly and have a ready answer for everything.
Schools are set up to encourage active participation within a larger group, whether that’s speaking up in class, activities at break times or extra-curricular clubs. It is this type of group-based, busy cultural infrastructure that plays into extroverts’ hands – introverts succeed in spite of this set up rather than because of it, often by putting on an extroverted persona. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Introversion and extroversion were first coined as personality traits in 1921 by Carl Jung. Jung described introversion as a preference to turn inwards – to naturally be more comfortable with your own inner world, and extraversion a preference to turn outwards – to feel more at home in the sensory outer world.
There are three further crucial points about Jung’s analysis.
Firstly, he held that while we are born with We have preferences, but we are adaptable. We may have a preference for one-to-one conversation over large networking events, or vice-versa, but it doesn’t mean we can’t cope with or enjoy both.
Secondly, he saw introversion and extroversion as a Continuum = there are adjacent elements are but the extremes are quite distinct.rather than a black and white difference. Extroverts and introverts are not necessarily poles apart.
And thirdly, he believed that one preference was no better than another – indeed, that a healthy society or workplace needs both, and that to be healthy individuals, we need to embrace both sides, while being comfortable with our natural energy ‘home’.
Differences in the brain
Scientific research over the past 15 years has highlighted physiological differences between the brains of people who define as introverts and those defining as extroverts.
Researchers found three important differences between the responses of introvert and extrovert brains:
More blood flowed to the introverts’ brains and more blood in an area indicates more stimulation – scientists believe this shows introverts need less external stimulus than extroverts as we have more internal stimulation naturally. The right amount of busyness and noise for an extrovert easily becomes too much for an introvert, who already has a lot going on inside.
The blood of extroverts and introverts followed different pathways in the brain. The introverts’ pathway was longer, taking in the frontal areas of the brain associated with problem solving and planning: introverts were focused on their internal worlds. By contrast, the extroverts’ pathway was much shorter and flowed to the sensory parts of the brain: the extroverts were focussed on the world around them.
The different pathways followed were linked to different neurotransmitters. The shorter, extrovert pathway was the one used by dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with movement and learning. Dopamine serves as a reward for new experiences. Introverts need less of this than extroverts: too much and we are over-stimulated.
By contrast, the longer pathway used by introverts is the one used by acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter associated with calm and memory.
These findings tell us that we introverts are not simply ‘quiet, retiring types’ – we are people whose brains have a lot going on, all the time. The different ways introvert and extrovert brains work lend themselves to particular strengths. Introverts can harness these strengths to become more effective in their work, rather than be depleted by trying to fit into an extroverted way of doing things.
This insight video is part of The Power of Introverts course.