How Does The Outdated Introvert/Extrovert Model Affect Our Professional Lives Today?

By Jennifer O’Callaghan

Throughout my adult life, I’ve frequently heard the question, “are you an introvert or an extrovert?” Each time, I’ve hesitated in my response, because the truth was I wasn’t really sure. There were times I’d craved peace and quiet, where I could be alone in my thoughts and curl up with a book. But I also had phases (especially in the excitement of a new job or social setting) where I felt the overwhelming need to branch out and connect. This conclusion sort of left me in limbo. As objective as I tried to be with myself, it was difficult to articulate where I fell on the scale between “social butterfly” and “homebody.”

The concept of introversion and extroversion has been a hot topic for years. Coined by Carl Jung in the early twentieth century, these oppositional personality traits have encouraged us to rank ourselves in our professional and personal lives. The Oxford dictionary defines the introvert as a “shy, reticent person”, while the extrovert is defined as someone “outgoing and overtly expressive.” Yet, these narrow descriptions could be doing us a disservice. 

One area these pre-conceived notions can be the most detrimental to is our work lives. If you’re used to being labelled an introvert, you could shy away from a well-suited opportunity that involves delegating to others, or presenting at board meetings. If you strongly identify with being an extrovert, you may worry about taking on a role that requires solitary independence, when it could be a chance to showcase your stellar problem-solving skills. 

When we put people in boxes, and make sweeping statements about their abilities, we’re not seeing the whole picture. Similarly, when we hold ourselves back from opportunities where we may be more than capable of rising to the challenge, we could be falling short of what truly fulfills us.

Being an introvert or extrovert simply has to do with where you receive energy and how you recharge. In the end, it has nothing to do with shyness, work ethic, or whether you’d make a great leader. Being human and dealing with others can be tough sometimes, so we tend to label each other for our own clarity. Yet, this strategy may be holding us back in the end. It’s true that people who lean towards introversion are tired by extreme interaction with others. It’s also true that extroverts are energized by social stimulation. But, over the years, many have felt forced to pick a side, when the many of us simply can’t be reduced to a category. 

A balancing act

The ambivert is the lesser known group that drifts between introversion and extroversion, depending on context. It also makes up the vast majority of us. You might feel energetic after a meeting with one specific team of people, while another group totally drains you. Ambiverts can perform tasks alone or in a group, and some may observe them as quiet, while others view them as highly social. They can be the life of the office party, but still enjoy working alone, reflecting deeply on ideas. 

That isn’t to say people don’t lean more toward introversion or extroversion- of course we do. But, as humans, we’re much more complicated than simply slotting ourselves into a group.  From brain structure to childhood history, we would need to analyze a multitude of factors to understand ourselves as a whole. 

 Apples and oranges

There’s a lot written online about which is the superior group- introvert, extrovert, or even ambivert. There also seems to be an underlying tug of war, where everyone wants to be a part of the winning team. With the stereotypes of introverts being better listeners, more creative, or refined, and on the other extreme, with claims that we live in an extrovert’s world, where they’re rewarded for speaking up more often, there’s no factual evidence that one is better than the other.

When CEO’s or managers analyze employees’ performance, instead of favouring those with social traits aligned with theirs, or categorizing people, they should instead think more in terms of what provides energy and efficiency, and what drains productivity at work. This goes below the surface of superficial traits, and helps employees explore what they actually need in order to excel. This pivot in thinking could be helpful when designing work environments or setting up systems for individual teams.

It’s tempting to make snap judgements about others in the workplace. It helps us neatly organize people, so we have each other “figured out.” We sometimes defer to this so we can fall back on it in tough or confusing times. But in the long run, it makes the world more one-dimensional and doesn’t allow people to explore hidden skillsets that they may not be aware of. Introversion and extroversion are just two extremes on the scale. Neither is an exact formula for career success. 

It’s time to shed outdated views and instead, dig deeper to unearth people’s complexities and unlikely combinations of talent and skill. When we pigeonhole others, we’re missing out on productive resources that could be right in front of us. If we broaden our view and see our colleagues and ourselves with fresh eyes, it makes us better at our jobs, and we can finally call a truce to the battle of the introverts and the extroverts. 

Jennifer O’Callaghan is a Toronto-based journalist and entrepreneur. She has a background in broadcasting and theatre. She also loves to write about creativity and self empowerment. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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