Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Intraversion at Work

For the 30 odd years of my life I've been an introvert, a facet of my character that I have tried very consciously to run away from. Recently I was in Africa for work and that work involved meeting a number of unknown people and attempting to build relationships with them. I felt very tired in the evenings. Not physically, but emotionally. The entire hypersocial experience of adjusting to new coworkers in a new office, meeting new people and building relationships was tough for me as an introvert. And of course, I couldn't hide behind intraversion so I built up a bit of a facade of extraversion to keep at my work. And it's amazing that over the years, despite my strengths being reflection, introspection and contemplation, that I was intimidated by the fact that I was in a role that was individual than as part of a team. I should have been happy in a way, but somehow years of feigning extraversion seem to have done me in.

So yesterday when our Managing Director shared this video with me, I was excited. It was Susan Cain speaking about the power of introverts. I'm quite certain I'll pick up her book and read, but in the mean time, I can't deny that there are several points she made that were epiphanies for me and learnings that our most important institutions - schools and workplaces can learn from. At the very least for introverts, I hope it'll help you feel a lot more at ease with yourself.

A few thoughts that I think employers, teachers and individuals can ponder over, from this rather excellent talk:
  • Is your school or workplace architected for extroverts? Do introverts get safe opportunities to be by themselves, intute, impute, introspect, reflect and contemplate their work? Is there an unspoken taboo against introverted behaviour?
  • Do introverts face a natural disadvantage in the way your institution runs? Do they get routinely overlooked when it comes to leadership and career advancement? Across the leadership of your organisation, do you have enough introverts who are allowed to be that way?
  • Are the role models in your institution mostly extroverts? If there are introverts who have the freedom to be introverted, do people know their stories? What's the story of the introverts who do grow in your organisation? 
  • Do you bring in people in the image of the organisation itself - focussed on gregariousness and extraversion? Do you value quiet contemplation and individual work too? 
  • How individualised is your system? Individualisation isn't the same as being individualistic. Nor is it about devaluing the collective.
  • Does your institution have enough low-key environments that are inviting for introverts? Or do they have to 'fit in'?
  • As a leader do you allow ideas to run a life of their own, or do you stamp your personality on them? As a leader do you display empathy and step back from offering your opinions - preferring to reflect on occasion? This is an important question for corporate and educational leadership. Do conversations always have a logical end? Or are you willing to go back and reflect on things you may have learned or not totally understood?
  • Have you ever rejected a person who is quiet or introverted as not being a team player, or as someone who won't 'fit in'? How does your institution look at intraversion vis-a-vis your said or unsaid entry criteria?
  • Is there an unspoken assumption that all brainstorming, creative thinking and ideation needs to happen in groups? What examples do you have of people having a free rein to explore and express their ideas without being subject to groupthink?
  • Are magnetism and charisma the most valued leadership traits in your institution? As a leader do you expect your people to be able to sell their ideas vocally, or do you routinely investigate what they're upto and create an environment for them to succeed?
  • Do people need to win arguments or convince others to move forward with their ideas? If you're the person they're having to convince as a extroverted leader, how willing are you to set aside your own thinking and biases and let your people do their thing?
  • Would you consider anyone asking the questions I've just asked, to be anti what your organisation stands for? 
I'm sure there are other thoughts this talk provokes and I'll be sure to watch it a few more times for it all to sink in. This talk was amongst the most inspiring and liberating ones that I've heard this year. Susan Cain's been through her own journey of being an introverted public speaker - one that I've been on myself. She's developing an online course on 'Public speaking for introverts' and I've signed up for the updates on that - do so if you're interested. And if anything, I hope you're that much more empathetic to that introvert near you.
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