Recognizing this bias helps managers and company leaders create spaces where everyone can thrive.
Time for a confession: I am a closet introvert (or rather a true ambivert). On the surface, I appear to be an extrovert. I think quickly, make friends fast, and I like public speaking. My introvert side shows up because I don’t like crowds, need lots of down time, and find small talk draining. Our culture really admires the loud, gregarious, social butterfly who loves to close down a party. The more I think about it, our culture’s fixation with extroversion could really be a bias.
I love Susan Cain’s TedTalk and book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking. In her work, Cain explores the “extrovert ideal,” particularly how traits such as being sociable, dominant, and quick thinking often rank as top personality traits. Using Cain’s definitions, “Introversion is more about, how do you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation. So extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation, whereas introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments. Not all the time – these things aren’t absolute – but a lot of the time. So the key then to maximizing our talents is for us all to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us.” Additionally, Cain reminds us that extroversion/introversion is a spectrum and often situational. For example, when I am hosting a party, my zone of stimulation is high. Not quite the same when I am at a music festival.
In our DEI efforts, we discuss many types of biases in the workplace: confirmation, performance, affinity, just to name a few. (Check out these awesome cards from LeanIn.) Should extrovert bias be added to the list? The fascinating thing about bias is that the more you talk about it, the more likely you are to detect and make efforts to avoid it. The extrovert bias is the unconscious partiality toward expressions of extroversion and that extroverts are more likeable, better leaders, and smarter.
According to Cain, “The extrovert ideal has been documented in many studies, though this research has never been grouped under a single name. Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends. Velocity of speech counts as well as volume: we rank fast talkers as more competent and likeable than slow ones.”
How does extrovert bias affect the workplace? According to Cain and others, the preference for extroversion is a new phenomenon in the U.S., primarily driven as our culture moved from an agricultural to industrial society. As workers moved into larger cities, traits that helped increase charisma became more important. Likeability is a currency. Extrovert traits become synonymous with success.
Identifying biases helps managers and company leaders create a space where everyone can thrive. I asked some self-identified introverts to share their thoughts and here is what I learned about common misconceptions:
- People who need solitude are anti-social. Many introverts find meetings and events drain their energy. My friend Nicole shared that often her need to recharge is seen as anti-social. Pay attention the next time you coerce a coworker to join a post-meeting happy hour. Work to dispel the impression that they are being “anti-social” because they need downtime.
- Everyone likes impromptu brainstorming. Not everyone can (or should) speak the ideas that pop into their heads. Many introverts require “processing time.” Don’t assume that faster processing time has anything to do with intelligence. Just because someone can spit out ideas quickly doesn’t mean those ideas are great.
- Great ideas are always at the ready. My friend Danielle reminded me that true creative, innovative ideas don’t pop out like candy from a Pez dispenser. Give people enough quiet time to meander down a creative road. Cain explores this extensively in her book and even suggested that the modern open concept workplace may not be helpful.
- We all love forced fun. Since connection matters so much to me, I am guilty of organizing “forced fun”. Thankfully, my friend Elena shared that activities with “forced, looking-like-a-fool fun” causes anxiety. Think office Olympics, karaoke, group skits, etc. Tread carefully with these. Allow people to be active observers or participants. Consider me a convert now!
- The most vocal must be the most productive. When someone takes up a lot of time in a meeting, it’s easy to assume they are extremely productive. My friend Janice shared a scenario she encountered with two interns in her firm. The interns had a group project and one spoke for the majority of the presentation. Janice confessed that her initial thought was that this silent intern did not contribute to the project. To her credit, she asked questions to determine how the team worked. This duo leveraged their collective strengths – one presented while the other did the bulk of the research.
- Everyone wants public praise. Janice shared a tactic she uses as a manager, which is to ask about a person’s “praise preference.” Sometimes employees are shy about stating this, but when pressed, most will say what they prefer. Do they like praise at an all-hands meeting? On the Slack channel? I’m a hand-written notes girl myself. She tailors praise to her employees!
- Strong leaders have certain personalities. Many introverts expressed to me (in private) that they felt their personality inhibits their professional growth. Introversion does not need to be overcome (I’ll say it louder for the extroverts in the back who were talking). Separate skills from personality traits. For example, public speaking is a skill, outgoing is a personality trait.
This list is not exhaustive, but rather a point for all of us to look at the ways we are hindering our teammates. Do not overlook many introvert superpowers such as creativity, observation, empathy, and listening. Where would our world be without these key traits? I’m begging for all of us to make spaces where we aren’t always being told to “stop being yourself.” Removing bias in our workplace isn’t easy or prescriptive. It requires empathy, or looking at things from the point of view of someone else. Ask more questions, pay attention, and start celebrating the quiet folks. Oh, and the next time I’m asked to attend that after-party, I am going to politely decline, so don’t make me feel bad about it!
Janki DePalma, LEED AP, CPSM, is a senior associate and director of business development at Kirksey Architecture. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.