Introverted Tortoises and Extraverted Hares

Blog-TortoiseFor months now, there’s been a bit of extravert-bashing going on in the press and in some psychology papers. The chances are that if you haven’t noticed this… you’re probably an extravert!

How so? Well extraverts tend to read less. Then if they do read something critical about their character, they’re far less likely than introverts to worry about it, or even take on board any of the criticism.

“Fair game”, introverts may say to the bashing, as introversion tends to be seen as less desirable, certainly in the Western world. Introverts are used to their personalities being denigrated, with words such as ‘inhibited’, ‘shy’, or ‘awkward’ featuring regularly throughout their lifetimes… and, to top that, introverts who also happen to be anxious are seen particularly negatively by society.

Although polarising people and stirring up controversy makes for a good story for the press, the reality is, as is usual, more nuanced: all personality traits have their pros and cons. Well I say that, and it’s an easy reassurance that many a psychologist might find themselves trotting out automatically, but even I have found it difficult at times to really sound like I mean it. What for example should I say when floundering for something positive to mention about anxious traits?

Then this study popped up in my Twitter feed. It’s worth a read; but in summary, it suggests that extraverts tend to create a favourable impression on others that they then under-deliver against when team-working; but anxious people do the reverse: they make a poorer first impression than extraverts, but are so eager to avoid social disapproval that they over-deliver. It appears that extraverts are good at networking, look assertive and confident, and create a positive impression on others (including recruiters and managers), but then might fail to listen to others, and dislike others being influential in the team. These traits lead to chips in the initial glossy veneer of the extravert. The main theme here is expectations: extraverts start high, then dip; anxious people start low, and then over-deliver.

There’s a salutary lesson here, made of two key points:

  1. Some traits are definitely more suited to different jobs.
  2. Some traits are likely to bias recruiters and managers towards people – they inflate your expectations of them; but remember, these traits may be irrelevant to point 1 above. In this instance your biases might lead you, in selection or team creation, to recruit the wrong kinds of people.

Here are just a few brief examples of possible matches between personality traits and roles, to illustrate these points:

 Traits Extraverted  Introverted 
 Stable Pilot – needs to deal calmly with a great deal of information coming simultaneously in real time in a safety critical situation. Brain surgeon – needs concentration on detailed work over an extended period, plus the ability to keep an objective, emotionally detached view of the patient.
 Anxious                Waiter – needs to relate sociably to the customers, whilst remaining eager to please and alert to possible problems. Insurance underwriter – needs to work in detail but looking for all of the potential problems or reasons why the insurer might need to pay out.

So for example, whilst an extraverted brain surgeon may make a great impression on recruiters by being confident and outspoken about their competence, the quieter, more self-effacing candidate might do a better job when performing the role day in, day out. Although the above are examples where you will undoubtedly find successful exceptions, they are intended to show that, generally, the demands of each job require certain dispositions. Allow your judgment to be swayed by a smooth-talking extravert and you may have forgotten that you don’t need an extravert; similarly, if you try to redress the balance by appointing introverts to a job that won’t suit them, you have a problem.

Differing expectations also blight women. In 360-degree-feedback surveys, women tend to rate themselves lower than others rate them. This has two implications:

  1. They may be less likely to apply for the roles that they deserve, based on having the right skills and knowledge.
  2. They may present themselves less persuasively in recruitment.

So there’s a risk that some introverted women actually suffer a debilitating double-whammy, with expectations of them being diminished twice-over.

This has implications for recruiters and coaches. For recruiters: make sure you have done objective job analysis, and then recruit for those skills, rather than relying on your ‘instincts’ too much. For coaches: remember that introverts and women may undervalue themselves; there’s little value in trying to encourage either group to be more like extraverts or men, but there may be great gains to be made by encouraging self-belief and teaching the awkward necessity of selling one’s virtues to others during early encounters.