Introversion and the Idea of ‘Stretching’

Before Wharton, I was familiar with “diversity” as being defined along a certain number of dimensions: race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or disability. Recently, I had the interesting experience of being introduced to a new dimension of diversity, one that I had never fully understood or appreciated: diversity in personality and, specifically, the introversion/extroversion spectrum.

After receiving a brief introduction to this subject in class, I picked up a copy of Susan Cain’s recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, which made for a thought-provoking read. In analyzing how American culture conceives of “good” personality traits, Cain makes the argument that many American institutions—business schools included—operate with a bias (spoken or unspoken) that favors extroverts. The implication is cause for concern; when the creative, analytic or other contributions of introverts are lost, the overall work product and quality of experience within an organization suffers as a result.

The solution? There seems to be a strong argument that employers, schools and other institutions should evolve their internal cultures and practices to embrace both the contributions and requirements of introverts (such as the need for periods of isolation to focus deeply on a task). Those that do so will gain a competitive advantage by leveraging the full capabilities and output of introverted individuals who were before marginalized or passed over for promotion.

Susan Cain

As an introvert, I have no problem advocating this position. However, at first glance, it seems difficult to square this notion with an equally compelling body of research that indicates that some of the most effective leaders and managers are those that can adapt their own personality styles to a variety of situations, including those that call for a certain degree of extroversion.  Under this line of reasoning, part of being an adaptable and effective leader is being capable from time to time of “stretching” into a role or situation that doesn’t neatly align with one’s natural tendencies and habits.  But is stretching a euphemism for giving in?

Ultimately, I think there is no contradiction here. A common theme underlying both of these ideas is the principle that neither introversion nor extroversion is universally better than the other. Each personality style has different strengths and weaknesses and may be better suited to different types of tasks. To overlook or belittle the contributions of extroverts within an organization would be as counterproductive and misguided as to maintain a status quo in which introverts are excluded from leadership roles. The good news is while approximately half of variation in personality may be genetically determined, the other half can be adapted and modified through concerted effort and practice. Thus, there is much that extroverts can learn from their introverted counterparts, and vice-versa.

Editor’s note: This post first appeared on the Wharton MBA Program’s Student Diarist blog on Oct. 28, 2012.


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