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The Introvert in the Workplace: How to Maximize Your Productivity

Personality and productivity in the workplace.

I decided to explore this question after reading an article on how to foster creativity in children and adults by New York Times opinion writer Susan Cain. She charges that the "new groupthink" in office and school settings encouraging collaboration is stifling individual productivity. She claimed that, because the most creative people are the most introverted, forcing people to work together in a face-to-face format will lead, not to better, but to worse ideas in industry, education, and the arts. The creative introverts, in other words, will be miserable and when they're miserable, they won't be able to have those creative thoughts that distinguish them from their more sociable counterparts.

As social psychologists have known for years, "groupthink" can, in some cases, spell the deathknell to good ideas. Originally coined by Irving Janus, the term refers to the kind of folie a deux (or troix or more) that takes over when people make fatally flawed plans without seeking input from outside the group. Often, groupthink characterizes a political regime that decides to enact some type of war or subversive plot without engaging in sufficient reality testing. The Bay of Pigs and the Iran Contra affair are just two examples. 

Cain suggests that placing individuals in group environments fosters groupthink on a daily basis and invariably leads not only to poor decisions but to wasted potential. She cites positive psychologist Mikhalyi Csikszentmihalyi  (pronounced "Chick-sent-mi-hi") as stating that "the most spectacularly creative minds in many fields are often introverted." It would follow that if we force introverts to share an office, a classroom, or a conference room, we'll fritter away their productivity.

It is true that groupthink can lead to very bad decisions, but, even as Cain acknowledges, some group collaborations turn out to be the ones tha are spectacularly successful (can you say "I-P-A-D"?). When you investigate the claim that introverts are more creative, you find that her claims are not only overly simplistic, but erroneous.

Turning next to who's more creative, there's actually little research to support the contention that creativity is correlated with a single personality trait. Eysenck reported in his book, Genius: The Natural History of Creativity, that the Jungian scale of intuition (as measured by the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory) was most highly related to creativity. Others found a relationship between "psychoticism," a measure of psychopathology, and creativity (e.g. Barrantes-Vidal, 2004). More recently, Swiss psychologists Haller and Courvoisier (2010) reported that the most creative individuals were the more "complex personalities" who could switch between introversion and extraversion. 

As neuroscientists begin to capitalize on the greater availability of imaging methods they are adding interesting twists to the presumed introversion-creativity link. Austrian psychologists Fink and Neubauer (2008) tested the Eysenck-based proposition that people are most creative when they are experiencing lower levels of arousal in the cortical areas of the brain. This hypothesis might seem counter-intuitive to you, Shouldn't you be most creative when your brain is most highly charged? The reason you're not is that the more activated your brain is, the more anxious and distracted you are. It's when your brain is relatively calm, short of sedated, that you are capable of your greatest insights. Relating this all back to Eysenck, it might surprise you further to learn that he proposed that it was extroverts, not introverts, who tend to have lower levels of brain activation.

Fink and Neubauer used a measure of brain wave activity with the lovely sci-fi name "alpha power." They measured originality of ideas with questions such as: "(1) Imagine, there were a creeping plant rising up to the sky.What would you await at the end of this plant?" and "(2) What would happen or may be changed, if there were nodoor locks any longer and all doors were unlocked?" (Try answering these questions yourself!)

In support of the extraversion-creativity link, Fink and Neubauer found that it was the extroverts, not the introverts, whose alpha powers were at their peak when they produced original ideas. The introverts who produced the least original ideas had the poorest alpha power (meaning their brains were more highly activated). As the authors concluded (p. 307): "Extraverted individuals who display high originality exhibit the lowest level of cortical arousal during creative thinking. In contrast, introverted individuals who produce less original ideas can be characterized by the strongest cortical arousal."

It's a shame that Cain presented such a black-and-white conclusions about introverts and extroverts. She did, however, correctly point out that there are many good reasons to develop collaborative relationships, both in your personal and professional lives. Some of the most successful research teams in recent years involved multiple teams of authors communicating over the Internet, sharing datasets, and publishing joint papers. I've benefited in my work from a 30-campus collaborative study on emerging adults in which we've investigated mental health, identity, ethnicity, and risk-taking among over 7,000 college students from all over the U.S.. I've conducted another cross-national study comparing Dutch and American middle-aged and older adults. I could never have done this work alone. Scientists in other fields also support this observation, particularly when it comes to making advances through sharing of ideas, data, and theories.

To build your own creative potential, here's the take-home message:

1. Seek the environment most conducive to your personal style. Identify when and how you've had your most creative moments and find ways to carve time out of your day to spend time in that environment, even if it's only for a short break.

2. Recognize the pros and cons of group collaboration. You can benefit from the shared perspective of other people, but don't let them talk you out of your best ideas.

3. Try to be as flexible as possible. You will ultimately be most creative when you can tap into your own "yin" and "yang." Balance is the key to psychological health in all areas of life.

4. Draw on your own alpha power. Relaxing your mind and decreasing distractions can help you channel your inner light bulb. The danger that people high in extroversion may face is that they don't spend enough quiet time which is partly what Cain warns about.

5. Use other people as a sounding board. When it comes to ensuring that your ideas are sound, it's often best to bounce them off other people. There are perils to groupthink, but there are just as many dangers in "individual think.' 

We may never be able to say with certainty what goes into making a creative superstar, but with these guidelines, you can tap into your own mind's inner genius.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012


Barrantes-Vidal, N. (2004). Creativity and madness revisited from current psychological perspectives. Journal ofConsciousness Studies, 11, 58-78. 

Eysenck, H. (1995). Genius: The Natural History of Creativity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Fink, A., & Neubauer, A. C. (2008). Eysenck meets Martindale: The relationship between extraversion and originality from the neuroscientific perspective. Personality And Individual Differences44(1), 299-310. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2007.08.010 

Haller, C., & Courvoisier, D. (2010). Personality and thinking style in different creative domains. Psychology Of Aesthetics, Creativity, And The Arts4(3), 149-160. doi:10.1037/a0017084