It’s important to note that one’s introversion or extroversion doesn’t define one’s social life, it only influences it. Introversion is not shyness. Shyness is social anxiety, and introversion is about energy gain and drain. The two might overlap in the same person, but they are not, by definition, the same thing.
These terms were coined in 1921 by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. You can read more about him here.
In the United States, recent research has shown the population to be roughly 50/50, with some statistics giving introverts a few percentage points more than extroverts. You often hear people talking about how we live in an “extroverted society.” When I use that term, it’s not because there are more extroverts. Rather, we tend to seek out, value, and reward extroverted traits more. We have an image of a healthy, happy person as being highly social, outgoing, talkative, and even spontaneous. In general, these traits are associated with extroverts. Therefore, when we look at what society values, it tends to look like extroversion. Introverts can certainly embody these traits, but they are often secondary or made possible by ample alone time. We introverts certainly can have these traits naturally or cultivate them in order to accomplish our goals and meet our social needs. In time, my hope is that we become a society that values extroversion and introversion equally, or even better, one that celebrates and honors the natural gifts and styles that each person contributes to the world.
Introversion is about where we gain and drain energy; shyness is related to social anxiety. People often collapse the two terms, in part because they look the same from the outside: someone who is quiet might be anxious, or might be listening/thinking/deciding not to jump in just yet. In most cases, we can’t tell just by looking. I’ve come across a stat that said that approx. 70% of people who identify themselves as shy also identify with being introverted. That means that 30% of shy people consider themselves extroverts! Another difference: shyness is something that you can, if you choose to, overcome; you don’t overcome being an introvert. In both cases, however, awareness, self-acceptance, and learning new skills will help with establishing a healthy relationship with that part of yourself.
Because introversion has been such a hot topic in recent years, it’s more acceptable to have open conversations about what it means to be an introvert in the workplace. A healthy approach would be to share with colleagues that you’ve been doing some reading about introversion and picked up information that has prompted you to make some changes in how you work and communicate. Then outline the changes you’re planning to make (for instance, creating a quiet zone in a portion of the office, or building “do not disturb” times into your day). Be prepared for feedback or even pushback, and decide where you’re going to stand firm and where you’re open to negotiation. You’ll probably find that sharing this aspect of yourself gives others permission to state their preferences as well. It’s not about giving people special treatment, or telling your colleagues, “You have to accommodate me.” The goal is to create a more respectful, efficient, and effective work environment, where people feel like their individual strengths and needs are considered.
Be clear going into the conversation that you’re ready to own being an introvert, that you’re not sharing it with them to excuse, defend, or apologize for your behavior. You’re simply sharing information that was useful to you, and you believe will make you a more effective leader and colleague.
To be an entrepreneur means to be a sales person. You’re always selling products, ideas, services, or yourself. Because of our internal orientation, along with the fact that we gain energy in solitude and drain energy through socializing, we introverts tend to feel challenged by the more people-oriented aspects of entrepreneurship. This might include networking, self-promotion, sales meetings, partnerships and collaboration, and in some cases, service delivery. It’s not that those areas are automatically weaknesses for us; it’s that we have to plan differently and work in sync with our energetic needs.
For example, I’ve found that I need to pace my client calls so that I have adequate recharge time before and after a session. My extroverted colleague can talk to eight clients a day, back-to-back. I work with three or four clients, and I’m ready to call it good. That awareness has real implications for my business model and how I structure my days.
Introverts tend to be excellent listeners, which is an asset in sales and leadership. We’re not big talkers (unless you get us going on something we’re passionate about!), so when we do say something, it’s usually carefully thought through and on point. We’re also generally good observers, which means we see things others miss. And most interestingly, I’ve found that many of my introverted colleagues are skilled, passionate public speakers. Public speaking gives us a stage that we don’t have to fight for. We have a chance to prepare, we are positioned as the expert, and others (we hope!) are giving us their full attention. Speaking on the spot might not be our forte, but a little prep time can go a long way. This is one skill I hope more introverts will embrace, since public speaking is a fabulous way to build your visibility and credibility among clients, prospects, and peers.
Introverts sometimes assume life would be better or easier, or that we’d be more successful, if we were extroverts. In my experience, extroverts have their own stereotypes to overcome, such as being perceived as too talkative, hogging the spotlight, too loud or abrasive, not being good listeners, or always needing attention or validation. And extroverts I’ve spoken with have repeatedly said: just because they’re extroverts doesn’t mean they’re always ready to party, or that they can’t have deep and meaningful conversations. They can have socially awkward moments, or feelings of shyness, or a need for lots of down time. In fact, I’ve heard some extroverts say they wish they were introverts! They admire our capacity for quiet and alone time, and our comfort with being a “party of one.”
There may be some introverts who are in professional or personal situations that theoretically might be easier if they were extroverts. But overall, I disagree with the idea that extroverts have the advantage. It’s only true if we decide that it’s true. It’s not occurred to me that because I’m an introvert, I can’t do something. Rather, I recognize that while it might not come naturally (like being really outgoing at a gathering of strangers), if I want to do whatever it is with some degree of comfort, I’m going to have to apply myself – to learn how to do it in a manner that fits my style, energy, and personality.
The key to tapping into the gifts of being an introvert is being aware of where you fall on the spectrum and honoring your natural energy. In short, working with your introvert strengths, not against them. Introversion can be a tremendous asset in ways that might not be obvious in our extrovert-leaning world. For instance, introverts may exhibit several of these positive traits, all of which can be extremely important in the workplace:
- Ability to focus and develop a depth of understanding
- Comfort with independent thought and action
- Capacity to listen and connect with people on an intimate level
- Active imagination and a strong creative streak
- Desire for knowledge, driven by curiosity
- Calm, steady presence during turbulent times
- Willingness to put other people and their vision in the spotlight
I can only speak to this anecdotally, because this is another area that is full of misconceptions. Many people would assume that introverts would be happiest in a job that isolates them from people. That we’re just paper pushers or number crunchers, and that anything that requires social skills would be either uncomfortable or unsuccessful for us. This may be true for some! But it’s a huge generalization – remember, we’re all on a spectrum, and we all have varying levels of introvert and extrovert traits.
That said, there do tend to be some occupations/sectors that have an introvert majority: information technology, engineering, accounting, counseling and psychology, writers, artists, library sciences. These professions often require someone to be a specialist, to have deep expertise. They entail a balance of interaction and solitude. There’s a fair amount of autonomy that balances with working on a team.
But introverts don’t just thrive in those types of jobs; it’s remarkable how many actors, politicians, musicians, entrepreneurs, teachers, public speakers, and athletes are introverts. In those cases, they have a role to play (sometimes literally!) and are required to attain mastery over their craft. That learning and practice often happens in solitude and demands focus.
Introverts are generally not drawn to careers in sales, customer service or other positions that put them in constant contact with the public. It doesn’t mean they can’t excel in those positions; in fact, they can make outstanding sales professionals because of their ability to listen, be curious, and provide someone with space to consider the options. More often, though, an introvert cultivates those skills in the context of a profession – such as accounting or entrepreneurship – rather than focusing on them 24/7.
There’s a phrase that Jim Collins uses in “Good to Great” that encapsulates for me the introvert advantage in leadership: the liability of charisma. When we think of a charismatic leader, we form the image of an outspoken, larger-than-life, celebrity personality. Both introverts and extroverts can be charismatic, but we most often associate the extroverted personality with stereotypical charisma. And that level of charisma means that employees are less likely to question or challenge the leader, even if they feel he’s wrong. The company is driven more from the leader’s personality, rather than the collective. That can lead to the identities of the company and leader being collapsed and seen as inseparable. Since the typical company will go through many leaders during its lifespan, it’s dangerous to be so intertwined with a single charismatic leader.
An introverted leader might not have the same amount of star power (although, don’t count them out!), but they can be charismatic and influential in their own way. They are often thoughtful and very good listeners. They put the needs and ambitions for the company before their own. To again borrow from Jim Collins, they tend to be more of a plow horse, rather than a show horse.
Those strengths can also be challenges. Thoughtfulness and listening can be perceived as indecisiveness or aloofness if people are expecting lots of verbal processing and sharing. Spending too much time in reflection might lead others to think action isn’t being taken. Introverts have such a rich inner life and dialogue, they can forget that they haven’t clearly communicated their intentions or ideas to others. This can lead their employees to think that they are not transparent enough. So to fix that, the introverted leader (and employee) might feel she’s over-communicating, but to those who want to hear from her, the amount of information is just right. Rising introvert leaders can also be self-effacing to a fault, which means they won’t take appropriate credit for their work and therefore be passed over for promotions. The introverted leader often has to work to find a balance between overt bragging and extreme humility.
There are exceptions to everything, and either energetic type can be a good or bad leader. What’s most important is understanding one’s type, its advantages and disadvantages, and being open to continual growth and awareness in service to the bigger vision.
I founded The Introvert Entrepreneur in 2010 after noticing I was attracting a lot of introverts to my fledgling coaching practice. My business brings together so many things I’m interested in: personality types, entrepreneurship, personal growth, communication and relationships, psychology. Being an introvert myself, I have a particular understanding of the challenges and opportunities inherent in being an introvert entrepreneur. There’s never a shortage of things to talk about!
When I first started to focus on introverts, I didn’t fully appreciate the full extent to which introverts were marginalized or stereotyped. I had an inkling, but I was surprised pervasiveness of misinformation and misunderstandings. I just thought introverts were cool and under-served! So it’s been fascinating over the past few years to witness (and I hope, contribute to) the shift of introverts being thought of as anti-social loners to being valued for their creative and introspective gifts.
While most people would more officially call me a coach and consultant, I prefer to think of myself as guide and mentor. I work with introvert entrepreneurs, supporting them as they build sustainable, energetically aligned businesses. I emphasize four things with my clients: awareness, alignment, action, and accountability. Introverts have long been given messages by society that we have to be something we’re not (natural extroverts) in order to succeed. So you could add a fifth “a” to my list: authenticity. I believe that when we fully accept, understand, and live according to who we are, at our core, we can create work that’s going to bring us happiness and fulfillment.