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Introverts Need Not Apply--But Why You Should Hire Them

Hiring only one personality type contributes to dysfunction at work.

Photo by Waponi via Flickr

Recently, Adam, an 18-year-old college freshman went into a major electronics retailer. Looking for a job, he asked to speak with the manager. In just a few brief moments, Adam explained he is very interested in electronics, that he owned two computers (a PC desktop and a Macbook Pro). He also is a photographer and video game enthusiast.

In short, Adam is very knowledgeable concerning most of the products that the retailer sells. He is also an honor student, well known for his technical and people skills.

The manager was friendly and encouraging, stating that they currently had several openings at the store. She directed Adam to the company’s online application process, which included a “personality test.” If all went well with the application, the manager would call Adam the next day to arrange an interview.

Adam rushed home to complete the application. He listed his sterling academic credentials, his previous part-time jobs, and his impeccable references. When it came to the personality test, he studied each question thoroughly before responding. He wanted to be totally honest.

Adam never received a phone call. He went into the store a few days later and the manager told him: “We don’t have any openings right now. I’m sorry.”

Did the retailer suddenly fill all their open positions in the few hours it took Adam to apply and take the personality test? Not likely.

In doing some research, Adam found that he likely “failed” the personality test. As someone who has some tendency toward shyness and introversion, he did not answer the personality test questions in the manner the retailer desired.

Although only the personality test designer knows for sure what the test is designed to measure, there are strong suggestions that the test is planned around finding extraverts and disqualifying introverts. This particular company is looking for people who respond with “strongly” agree or disagree. People who say “somewhat” agree or disagree are considered to have “weaker” personalities. In addition, the company looks for people who complete the test quickly, as this is another sign of being “decisive.”

This situation is not unique. We live in a culture that rewards the outgoing, even when the introvert may be more knowledgeable and skilled.

Susan Cain describes this eloquently in her new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Prior to the 20th century, we lived in what she terms “the culture of character.” Individuals were judged primarily on the content of their character.

By the 1920’s, as America became more urbanized, and salesmanship became a vital part of the economy, people started being judged on their apparent personality. First impressions took on greater importance. It was vital to be perceived as “captivating” and having a strong personality. Winning friends and influencing people became the goal.

Sounds melodramatic? Perhaps. Is this true? Definitely.

As Cain notes, in the late 1940’s the Provost of Harvard said that Harvard should reject those who are “sensitive and neurotic” and “intellectually over-stimulated.” Not to be outdone, Yale’s president, in 1950, expounded that the ideal Yale student was not a “beetle-browed, highly specialized intellectual, but a well-rounded man.” A dean stated: “We see little use for the ‘brilliant’ introvert.”

Cain quotes a Harvard Business School student who reports learning the following at Cambridge:

  • “Speak with conviction. Even if you believe something only 55%, say it as if you believe it 100%.”
  • “If you are preparing alone for class, then you are doing it wrong. Nothing at Harvard Business School is intended to be done alone.”
  • “Don’t think about the perfect answer. It’s better to get out there and say something than to never get your voice in.”

So where does this kind of thinking get us? Consider the logical corollaries:

  • Speak misleadingly about things you don’t fully believe in. Don’t think of the downside of what you are suggesting.
  • Go along with groupthink even though research suggest this is dangerous.
  • Give an answer quickly without taking the time to come up with a better idea.

Now, back to Adam, what did the retailer lose by not even considering his application?

Adam tends toward shyness and definitely is on the introverted side. He is a very good listener. He would be very effective at listening to a customer’s needs and steering the customer toward products that meet those needs. He could sell a PC or a Mac, depending on the intended use. He could sell Nikon or Canon. That customer would leave the store feeling cared about and satisfied with their purchase. He would focus on the customer, not his own salesmanship. He would provide service. And, customers likely would return to get his advice in the future.

I have been in this retailer and have made many purchases. I have also been frustrated to have sales associates who clearly know nothing about a product trying to convince me why I can’t live without it.

Extraverts and introverts each bring unique gifts to the workplace. Hiring one personality type to the exclusion of the other only contributes to dysfunction in our culture. Adam will be fine. He will find a place that values his skills and he will thrive. Employers who discriminate against introverts may be less resilient, though, because they will miss out on the thoughtful, reasoned ideas that bring balance to their enterprises.

Copyright 2012 Greg Markway

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