When speaking about introversion, I spend a lot of time managing assumptions. We (literally) throw ideas, myths, and knee-jerk assessments out into the open, uncover them, and say them out loud before addressing the science, psychology, and other research behind temperament that fills in that knowledge. And indeed, our assumptions about what we think introversion and extroversion mean are affecting our ability to impactfully talk about temperament – and our ability to meaningfully interact with one another.
Even once individuals find out what their type is, it is easy and tempting to fall into the “You’re an extrovert, so you should [fill in the blank],” or “You’re an introvert, so you can’t [fill in the blank]” trap. And I find that trap, particularly for introverts, is based in broad assumptions and mental shortcuts about what their type really means. As it happens, psychologists are seeing this too. And in 2014, a trio of Wellesley psychologists set out to do something about it.
The problem? As The Science of Us puts it, “the way many introverts defined [introversion] was different from the way he and most of his academic colleagues did.” As lead researcher Jonathan Cheek said to them, “many people do not feel identified or understood by the label introversion as its used in the culture or by psychologists. It doesn’t do the job – it helps a little bit, but it doesn’t get us very far.” And as Shana Lebowitz elegantly sums up the challenge at hand: “The goal is to change the way personality psychologists talk about introversion, so they see it as a starting point to understanding personality as opposed to an endpoint.”
With that said, let’s look a little more closely at the subsets of introversion that Cheek and his co-authors Jennifer Grimes and Julie Norem came up with. As with being shy versus outgoing, these measurements can intersect, and all individuals will have elements of each in their temperament profile. I’ll also be sharing challenges that each type might present in a workplace or organizational capacity, and how the culture can adapt to best access the benefits of each type.
Social introversion likely comes closest to what many think of when determining if someone’s an introvert or not: preferring the company of small groups versus large ones, and at times no company at all. Is this a hallmark of some introversion? Absolutely. But as Quiet author Susan Cain puts it, “even people who understand introversion still imagine that it’s really just about ‘would you rather be on your own or with a close friend?’ In fact, there’s so much more than that.” This desire to limit social circles is not to be confused with shyness, which is an emotion borne of fear. Rather, social introverts limit interactions with large groups or highly energetic counterparts to avoid being sapped of their own energy.
Strengths of Social Introverts: When placed in deliberate interactions with small groups (intentionally developed committees, one-on-one meetings or client work), they’ll excel at listening, contributing meaningfully, and guiding the group toward their desired goal.
To Be at Your Best: Provide opportunities for them to get to know those who they’ll work with frequently in low-stakes, relatively low stimulation environments. In the event that they’ll need to be effective in larger groups than comfort would allow, provide space and time for them to prepare for those interactions. Social introverts, when coming to these spaces, seek to provide your insight and contributions early. The conversation will be able to develop around your input, and you’ll have expended your energy early and can rebuild it by listening and observing in later parts of the gathering.
Thinking introverts are characterized less by their social interactions, and more by their desire to engage in introspection, deep thought, and self-reflection. These are the visionaries of your group, who come with an idea that seems to have sprung fully formed from their mind. In reality, that idea was likely the result of considerable contemplation, refinement of how to present the idea, and an exhaustive analysis of what could go wrong and how to fix it. I love Cheek’s explanation of it, using Harry Potter terms: “think the dreamily imaginative Luna Lovegood, not the socially awkward Neville Longbottom.”
Strengths of Thinking Introverts: They’re excellent troubleshooters, and can likely be an asset when trying to weigh multiple courses of action. Whereas a need to move fast can often lead us to overlook prospective challenges or missteps, the thinking introvert on your team will encourage you to slow down, weigh options, and find issues before they arise.
To Be At Your Best: Provide thinking introverts what they need to work deeply. This may mean a workspace that minimizes distraction. This may be the flexibility to work from home now and again. This may mean a longer timeline than might be convenient, allowing them to take their time and analyze a lot of information or input thoroughly. And if you are a thinking introvert, make liberal use of the phrases “let me think about that a little bit and get back to you,” or “can we come back to me? I’m still thinking about that.” Learn them, practice them, deploy them often. Knowing that your input is best when considered over a longer period, and acting on that knowledge, will allow you to contribute in a manner that best suits you.
Anxious introverts first and foremost, is not a redundancy in terms. I get asked a lot if there’s an explicit connection between anxiety and introversion. There is not, so much so that the latest version of the DSM (the Bible for psychological disorders) has removed introversion as a symptom of anxiety and several other disorders, where it sat for many years prior. The two are not connected directly, but some (such as myself) do experience both. “Anxious,” in this case, is tied to a tendency to ruminate, or fixate on a thought and turn it over and over in the mind. It’s an ongoing anaylsis of an idea or scenario that analyzes and fixates on “[what] might or could or already have gone wrong.”
Strengths of Anxious Introverts: When positioned properly, this ruminating tactic of anxious introverts can be deployed to achieve organizational improvement. Have you misstepped as a department or institution recently? Having a hard time figuring out why? Put a ruminator on it; they’ll find you an answer. In a manner similar to the thinking introvert, anxious introverts can use their highly analytical tendency for good, finding the root of the problem at hand. Combined with the powers of the thinking introvert to find a solution for next time, this seemingly troublesome tendency can actually be a help.
To Be at Your Best: Be open with information as much as you can. Ruminating becomes dangerous when based in assumptions, misinformation, and things we could never know. Bad rumination, as someone who engages in it often, is rooted in a lot of “What if?” or “What about?” questions. With the information necessary to answer those questions, rumination takes on a very different form- organizationally, that can mean a more productive form. And to the anxious introvert: if you find yourself ruminating about things without the information you need, I’d encourage you to schedule it. That is to say, if you’re worried about the outcome of a meeting or decision and can’t fill in the informational gaps you need to feel at peace, put it off. “Today’s Monday, I’ll worry about this on Thursday.” As it pops up in your mind, put it off. Then, when you reach your allotted time, fret away- but only for that designated amount of time. Compartmentalizing that type of worry can help you be productive in the interim, and sometimes you’ll find that when the time comes to worry…you don’t need to!
Restrained introverts are sometimes also referred to as “reserved introverts.” They operate at a pace that, comparatively, may seem slow or delayed. This can make itself evident conversationally, where they choose words carefully before speaking; or it can even manifest itself physically, in taking a while to get going in the morning (hi, yes, this is me) or after a period of rest. They tend to be more risk-averse, and a packed or busy schedule likely hinders them more than it helps them. As Introvert, Dear’s Jenn Granneman puts it in The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World, “to relax, they like to slow down and take it easy, as opposed to seeking out new or exciting experiences or sensations.”
Strengths of Restrained Introverts: They’re unlikely to get carried away in the frenzy of an unexpected or emergency situation. Flustered? Maybe. But they’ll deliberate on the correct course of action before speaking up and offering a contribution, less likely to be moved by the flurry of activity around them. This cool head is essential as we societally aim to slow down the deluge of work and seeming need for lightning-fast solutions.
To Be at Your Best: Restrained introverts may also benefit from the flexibility afforded thinking introverts. If they’re not at their best in the morning or early on in a week, is it possible to alter their work schedule to be later in a day or start later in a week, to take advantage of their best performance times? Additionally, the need for deliberation before sharing makes a case for multiple forms of contribution. If anyone on your team- irrespective of temperament- needs more time to weigh in on a topic, is it possible to extend the decision-making time a few days? People can use the additional time to compose emails on their thoughts, set up one-on-one meetings, or other forms of communication. With the understanding that all forms of contribution will be weighed equally (no extra points for being first), we can change the way we make decisions. And restrained introverts: don’t rush the magic. You know yourself well enough to know what it takes to get you moving. Stick to doing those things, your best work will come when it comes (within the good taste of deadlines and other people’s needs, of course).
Indeed, that last tidbit of advice should hold true for all flavors of introvert. Becoming aware of who you are and how you work, will allow you to better advocate for yourself and find your best place at work. Make your mark in the way that most looks like you; you do have amazing things to offer! And if you’re curious about where you fall in each of these types, take the quiz at Science of Us!