Monday, July 27, 2015

Extroversion, introversion, and ambiversion

Apparently, it is now acceptable and even cool to be an introvert in the workplace, after many years of hearing about how important it was to be an extrovert in the workplace. Saturday’s NY Times ran an article about exactly this-- I guess it’s a good thing if introverts are finally being appreciated in the workplace. But I have to wonder why we cannot all just ‘live and let live’, generally in society and in the workplace specifically. I wrote a comment in the article’s Comments section; to wit—“It would be great if we were all allowed to be who we are--introvert, extrovert or somewhere in-between--and to contribute accordingly in the workplace. Why must everything become a trend? Extrovert last year, introvert this year. What's cool for next year? Why can't we accept that people are different? We cannot all be the same--God forbid. What a boring world that would be”.

I cannot understand why workplaces are so fickle and so insecure. Some people do not want to be social all the time, or spend all their time in meetings; they simply want some alone time to do the best job they can with the talents they are given. Do employers actually think that if all employees were pure extroverts, or pure introverts, that workplaces would be better places? These trends are the new flavors of the month, and I’m betting that most employees are sick of them. Employees have had extroversion pushed down their throats during the past decade, with no consideration for whether that particular personality trait was even helpful or good for them. I can attest to that; scientists have been pushed hard to sell themselves and their research, in ways that seem so foreign to the profession. It’s as though we were supposed to be salespeople selling a product. Frankly speaking, I’m not sure you can just switch from one to the other at whim if you are a true introvert or true extrovert. I happen to be one of those people who does not believe we can just toss off our old coat and put on a new one at the behest of our employers. One does not go from being an introvert today to being an extrovert tomorrow; it wouldn’t matter to me how many motivational, marketing or sales courses one attended. To some extent, we are the products of our genes, and to some extent, our environment can modify their expression. I’m not saying we can’t modify our behavior or personality traits, but I’m willing to bet that most people understand whether they are more introverted or extroverted from a young age, and choose their professions accordingly. I’d bet also that sales and marketing professions attract more extroverts, while research and laboratory professions attract more introverts. I’d need to see the statistics on this though, before I could come to a reasoned conclusion.

The workplace needs introverts (those people who are energized by being alone and whose energy is drained by being with other people--see, extroverts (those people who are energized by being together with other people--see, and all those who define themselves as in-between (those who have the qualities of both). I fall into the latter category, which certainly seems to include the majority of people. After some searching online to find out what these people are called, the word ambivert popped up--someone who exhibits qualities of both introversion and extroversion. I am an ambivert—I enjoy (and need) my quiet alone time as a scientist, but also the social interactions at work. I enjoy (and need) my quiet alone time at home, but also the social interactions with family and friends. When it comes to social interactions, I prefer to have the element of choice—to choose how, when and where I will be social. I cannot be around people or talk to them every second of every day; I have no desire to be ‘on’ all day, every day. I need to be alone at times in order to recharge my batteries; and sometimes I need to be with others in order to do the same. It seems to balance itself out rather nicely for the most part.

Even with these definitions though, we need to stop ‘labeling’ people in the workplace (and in society too), and let employees contribute how best they can. It makes no sense to force a true introvert into an extrovert’s role, or vice versa. You will only create fearful, stressed and unhappy employees. I think the time has come to appreciate employees for their uniqueness and unique ability to contribute in the ways that make them feel comfortable. I’m not saying employees shouldn’t be challenged, but those challenges should have more to do with the framework of their work projects (e.g. giving them more responsibility within the confines of the project) and less to do with their personality traits.  


  1. Would you say there is a difference in how introverts are treated in Norway vs US or other places?

    1. In my opinion, no. I can only compare Norway and the US. I've lived in Oso for over twenty years. I would say that there was more of a 'live and let live' attitude toward introverts during the 1990s, at least in my profession. That has changed considerably during the past decade; the current emphasis is on promoting yourself aggressively and 'selling your product' (demonstrating your worth) as a scientist. From what I hear via friends and colleagues, it is not so different in other professions. For example, open office landscapes, shared desks, shared offices, etc. are supposed to facilitate a greater social interaction such that there will be greater sharing of ideas. That may work in some professions, and even in my profession, some of the time. But in the long run, it is counterproductive. Generally, a certain amount of quiet alone time is necessary for a scientist to function. I would guess the same is true for other professions. Overall, I think the emphasis on extroversion during the past decade has been a global phenomenon; in that respect, Norway and the US are not very different.