The Introversion-Extroversion Spectrum

Introvert seems to be a nasty word these days. It's worth unpacking why, though, according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In the book, she point to an overemphasis on the extrovert rooted in the shift from a 'culture of character' to a 'cult of personality,' stemming from the need to find new ways to quickly and repeatedly introduce one's self—to sell  one's self—in the newly-urbanized United States in the early part of the 20th century. 

The rise of industrial America was a major force behind this cultural evolution. The nation quickly developed from an agricultural society of little houses on the prairie to an urbanized, ‘the business of America is business’ powerhouse…Americans found themselves working no longer with neighbors but with strangers. ‘Citizens’ morphed into ‘employees,’ facing the question of how to make a good impression on people to whom they had no civic or family ties.
— Cain, Susan (2012-01-24). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (p. 22). Kindle Edition.

An exercise in contrasts…

An introvert often…

  • Thinks before speaking
  • Might enjoy social situations, but needs breaks and space to retreat
  • Values time to deeply consider something before making a decision
  • Contemplates 

While an extrovert…

  • Is strongly focused on relationships 
  • Works well on teams, and desires or even requires active, live collaboration to produce results—often "thinking aloud"
  • Tends towards quick action
  • Is more comfortable in the spotlight

Introversion and extroversion could be said to be fluid ends of a spectrum, and many successful people draw from both ends of that spectrum or can traverse it easily. The cultural preference (at least in the United States) for extroversion, though, has fewer people identify themselves as extroverts than they perhaps actually are—Cain relates to her readers that it comes as a surprise to many people that 1/3 to 1/2 of the U.S. population would be classified as introverts. 

Cain's extraordinary book has been chosen as Fast Company's #1 Business Book for 2012, among other things, and rather than recreate its work, we invite you to explore this great visual summary of its case for being written.

In order to create effective innovation, we need to balance the creative, agile, unifying power of the extrovert with the nuanced reasoning of the introvert. Let's start by briefly exploring the modern workplace.

What the Modern Workplace Tells Us About the Introversion-Extroversion Spectrum

The modern workplace has perhaps swung too far on a pendulum from introversion to extroversion. Many modern workplaces favor open-plan workspaces, desks where everyone faces each other for near-constant interaction (and interruption) and nearly-endless schedules of meetings attempting to give two- or three-line responses to complex problems. The rising trend of telecommuting is likely not just a response to increasing office costs and commute times, but a reaction, especially from introverts, to this overstimulating work environment. 

In the context of telecommuting, we see the computer and phone used as a way to mitigate overstimulus. The research-backed practice of singletasking in reinforced through linear, one-meeting-at-a-time interactions using the phone. Nuanced, quiet thoughts can emerge, and there is less risk of a coworker seeing unfinished thoughts in the form of in-progress documents. While it does not necessarily work for people to always telecommute, the rising focus on telecommuting may well be a positive response to overstimulus.

In her book Quiet, introvert researcher Susan Cain relates the experience shared with her by Jason Fried, cofounder of the web collaboration company 37signals, maker of the popular team software Basecamp, when she asked about the preferences of his employees:

He found that they went anywhere but their offices, which were too noisy and full of interruptions. That’s why, of Fried’s sixteen employees, only eight live in Chicago, where 37signals is based, and even they are not required to show up for work, even for meetings. Especially not for meetings, which Fried views as “toxic.” Fried is not anti-collaboration— 37signals’ home page touts its products’ ability to make collaboration productive and pleasant. But he prefers passive forms of collaboration like e-mail, instant messaging, and online chat tools.

Larry Crawford, owner of Silicon Valley business construction company Permian Builders, confirmed that there is a disconnect between the fashionable open-plan, plank-tabled ideal of the collaborative workspace and what most workers actually want, even in collaboration-centric tech companies. When we discussed the topic, he shared the example of cubicles: almost all of his client's employees prefer higher cubicle walls which permit them privacy from their coworkers so that they can stand up briefly or go to a common space for collaboration, rather than lower cubicle dividers which result in 'constant interruption' from colleagues. 

Future explorations…

  • How extroversion and introversion might show up in hierarchies
  • How extroversion and introversion might show up in networks
  • Practical first steps to creating workspaces for introverts and extroverts
  • Asynchronous collaboration