professional development

Five myths about introversion

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I was exceptionally honoured when the senior editor of the Harvard Business Review Blog Network asked me to write a post about introverts, which led to the network publishing An Introvert’s Guide to Networking. I have been amazed by the response it’s garnered and the number of emails I have received from introverted executives “pouring their hearts out” to me.

As I read through the hundreds of comments on the post and the emails, I realised there are clear myths about introversion that are relatively pervasive. I aim to dispel them here.

Introversion myth #1: Being introverted isn’t the same as being shy

While there may be a number of introverts who are shy, there are also a number of extroverts who are shy. There is no direct correlation.

Introversion myth #2: Introverts are socially inept or anxious in social situations

Again, while this may be true for some introverts, this can also be true for extroverts and is not directly related to one’s introversion.

Introversion myth #3: If I am fearful of public speaking I must be an introvert

Studies show the fear of public speaking is the top fear people face, and that 75% of individuals experience speaking anxiety. Yet less than half of all people are introverts. Again, there is no direct correlation and this affects extroverts in the same way it affects introverts.

4. Introversion myth #4: Introverts have communication challenges and difficulty knowing what to say

This is social anxiety, not introversion. If you research social anxiety you do not find references to introversion as a cause.

5. Introversion myth #5: If you act like an extrovert you can “overcome” introversion

The truth is best summed up by an email I received from a fellow executive: “I have spent the better part of a 10-year career turning introversion into extroversion via the same technique used by people to cure bad posture – overcorrect it long enough and the correct posture becomes natural. This approach was certainly memorable but I made a fool of myself more times than I can remember, which is not conducive to long-term connections.”

The bottom line: there is no need to “overcome” introversion or try to be someone you’re not. Introversion is simply a natural preference, and introverts have many laudable strengths because of it.

Then what is introversion?

Introversion is a general preference for being alone or in small groups with others which stems solely from the fact that introverts get their energy from their “inner world” of thoughts, ideas, reflections and even memories. We get excited when we come up with new ideas, and as we begin to mull over how we’ll bring them to life we become naturally energised. We love brainstorming and talking about our ideas with just one or two other people so that we can thoughtfully reflect as we think. Generally speaking, we think in our heads rather than out loud.

Our extroverted colleagues, on the other hand, get their energy from being in the “outer world” of people and places and things. They think out loud, and they actually gain energy from being around large groups of people. For introverts, being in a large group is draining, which is why we have to take time to recharge after being at social events or in large work groups.

A business example

Think about a team strategy session being held by a department of a major corporation. The introverts in the department will prefer to think through the strategies they’d like to propose, and to reflect on the pros and cons of these strategies, prior to being in a large-group environment. They will do best when they have time to develop ideas of their own, perhaps run them by a few others in small group meetings, reflect on everything, and then take their strategies and opinions to the larger group.

Extroverts would prefer to skip all of this and simply meet in a large group for the strategy session. They get energised by the ideas that everyone shares and are likely to exuberantly think out loud.

Importantly, none of this has anything to do with any of the individuals in this department being shy, socially anxious, not knowing what to say, being afraid to speak in public or being inhibited around others.

The truth about introverts

Many introverts, including many of my friends and colleagues, are socially adept, confident, adroit at networking, outgoing around others, enjoy public speaking, and never spend a moment worrying about what they’ll say next. But at the end of the day, they’ll recharge by being alone with their thoughts, and they look forward to time spent reflecting.

Being an introvert is truly an advantage in business and leadership if you know how to leverage it. If you’ve received it, honour it.

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