Setting the record straight about introverts and extroverts

Of all the psychological concepts that have made it into modern culture, one of the most popular is that of ‘introverts and extroverts’. Yet there are also few that have been more misunderstood, and many myths still persist about this tricky personality trait.

Popularised by psychoanalyst Carl Jung in the early Twentieth Century, the concept of being ‘introverted’ often conveys shyness or withdrawal from people, and can even carry a stigma of appearing to imply less confidence or skill with people. In her influential book Quiet, Susan Cain has set the record straight on the strengths of introverts in a world sometimes overly dominated by extroverts. Our view of introversion and extroversion is changing all the time.

In a recent review of personality literature, Professor Adam Grant summarises a few of the myths about introverts and extroverts that are being dispelled by modern research:

  1. Introverts are good in social situations, they are just more sensitive to other people and need more time to process all the things they notice and experience. Extroverts tend to be less sensitive to stimulation, and hence crave more of it, but both camps are good with people.
  2. Introverts can make good public speakers, just like extroverts. Whether we are good performers, and whether we worry about speaking in public, seem to correlate to other factors more than introversion and extroversion. Many performers are actually quite introverted.
  3. Extroverts don’t make better leaders. Despite a general prejudice that introversion is a handicap for leadership and management roles, in fact both ends of the spectrum appear to be equally successful at leadership. Introverted leaders tend to lead proactive, engaged staff better, whilst extroverted leaders are better at leading passive teams that look for direction from above.
  4. Extroverts aren’t better networkers either. They might enjoy the experience of networking more, but this doesn’t mean other people enjoy being with them too. Extroverts can be more overbearing and studies suggest they can cause more negative reactions in other people, whilst introverts tend to be slightly easier to be around in calmer social environments.
  5. ‘Ambiverts’ make the best sales people. Rather than the classic view of extrovert sales people charming clients and dominating discussions, people in the middle of the spectrum – ambiverts as they are sometimes known – seem to be more commercially successful. Dan Pink writes about this in his book To Sell Is Human: listening is an important component of modern selling, not just talking.

It may take a while for these factors to filter through to business practices, recruitment strategies and popular culture, but it’s clear that our old views of introverts and extroverts need to change. It’s time to start recognising the strengths and weaknesses of both ends of the spectrum, and designing our organisations, and our society, to get the best from everyone.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.