“Leadership is not necessarily being the loudest in the room.” —Jacinda Ardern
Relative to the existing literature on extroversion, there is a dearth of research focused on the assets of introversion, particularly within groups and organizations. The limited research that does exist uncovers countless benefits of this often-underestimated personality trait.
Important to remember is that introversion and extroversion are not black-or-white concepts; rather, they lie on a spectrum. Each individual is unique, and each situation is unique. However, many of these qualities remain consistent throughout one’s lifetime.
One of the defining features of introversion is the “orientation toward the internal private world of oneself, and one’s inner thoughts and feelings, rather than toward the outer world of people and things.” (APA) When so much time is spent in one’s head—the birthplace of ideas and insights—it should come as no surprise that vision and wisdom often spring from the minds of introverts.
Researchers (2021) looked at introversion within academic medicine and found that introverted students were getting lower grades while experiencing higher stress levels. The reason for the lower grades had absolutely nothing to do with the students’ intelligence levels. Rather, they were primarily based on verbal participation—the thing most dreaded by introverts. Utilizing this as a measure of talent automatically set the odds against the quieter students. It also speaks to how culture disproportionately values loudness, often mistaking it for intelligence. The authors state:
Medical school seems stacked in favor of the extrovert, […] with group activities, rapid-fire questions, and all that talking. This may cause the introverts to feel like misfits, being afraid of being wrong or misunderstood…feeling a need to change their identities to succeed in medical school.
The above sentiment could apply far beyond academia; for example, to organizations and corporations with open-office policies, which were ironically designed to be an egalitarian concept. In reality, they are a perfect setup for alienating introverts, a group that makes up one-half to one-third of the population. According to the researchers, “everyone misses out on learning opportunities when a group...is not heard or feels uncomfortable to speak up.” They identified steps to facilitate a conducive space to empower introverts and create a more comfortable learning environment for all students, regardless of where they fall on the introversion-extraversion continuum. These steps can be used to encourage awareness of the unique strengths of introverted individuals and can be adapted beyond the classroom to corporations, organizations, and any other group of human beings looking to flourish:
1. Become self-aware. If you are a leader—academic or otherwise—understanding where you stand on the introversion-extroversion continuum will give you insight into how you may be skewing your leadership style. If you are an extrovert, your preferred style could benefit those who share that trait but alienate the rest of the group. Consider whether you are holding any biases against those with personality traits that differ from your own.
2. Get comfortable with silence. In a society that values loudness, prolonged moments of silence can feel excruciating, especially to extroverts. Do not confuse silence with disinterest or lack of knowledge. Silence fosters awareness, careful consideration, and clearing of the mind, enabling a pathway to insight and ideas. By understanding the benefits of this underestimated virtue, it can be used as a powerful teaching and learning tool. For example, asking for a pause between question and answer allows introverts to gather their thoughts before the extroverts jump right in.
3. Offer diverse opportunities to contribute. Participation can go beyond shouting out an answer in a room full of people, whether in a classroom or a boardroom. Consider written contributions. Take a few moments for everyone to gather their thoughts quietly while writing them down. When extroverts start shouting out answers, most introverts will shut down. Some of the best ideas come not from spitting out the first thought that comes to mind but from a little bit of introspection and careful consideration, an introvert’s superpower.
4. Evaluate performance in different settings. There are many ways to assess performance other than public verbal contribution—ways that can be just as, and perhaps even more, valuable. Consider giving less weight to vocal prowess and more to what the individual brings to the table overall. Let the quality of the work speak for itself.
5. Talk about differences. Once you become aware of differences, begin a conversation about how diverse traits and learning styles can complement one another. Introverts will likely feel more confident in an inclusive environment where all personality traits are valued equally. Awareness and open discussion are valuable pathways to change. This applies to all differences beyond personality type.
6. Understand the unique strengths of introversion. Not surprisingly, the researchers found an underrepresentation of introverted leaders within the school. Again, this is a phenomenon that expands well beyond the academic realm. The quieter ones in the room are not only overlooked much of the time; they are also misunderstood. This is unfortunate because, despite outdated myths, introverts make strong and effective leaders.
When introverts are given the floor, everyone benefits. Leaders should become acquainted with the multitude of talents inherent in introverted individuals. They must be reminded again and again that it is not always the loudest ones in the room that have the best ideas. In fact, it just may be the contrary.
de Jongh R and de la Croix A. (2021). 12 tips to hear the voices of introverts in medical education … and to improve the learning climate for everyone.MedEdPublish 2021, :107