When I talk about introversion and extroversion, I do not use these terms the same way most other people do. To me, introversion and extroversion have to do with where someone gets his or her energy—is it from within, or from a social give an take with others?—that is related to, but certainly not equivalent to, the person’s sociability.
To most people, extroverts like parties and introverts like quiet evenings at home. To me, that’s neither here nor there, especially at executive levels. Much of an executive’s job has to do with interacting with other people; even if they are “introverts” and like quiet evenings at home, they will have been trained to like going out because they know that social interactions lead to revenues… and more than anything else (hopefully), that executive likes revenues! What people typically call extroversion is, to me, social orientation. Other areas where traditional introversion/extroversion lines get blurred:
- Comfort with public speaking. Enjoying and being good at public speaking is a thing unto itself, and not the exclusive domain of either introverts or extroverts. Speaking to a crowd—and here I mean more than 6 or 7 people—allows one, if he wants, to put a “4th wall” between him and the audience. I know plenty of introverts who are comfortable once that wall goes up, because it allows the person to remain private and mentally apart from the group if he so desires.
- Social skill. Ironically, although extroverts tend to have better natural social skills, people who are truly great at working social interactions tend to be introverts who have learned social skills. This elite crop of introverts took the time to study what it is that makes extroverts fun, and they have developed a set of skills that allows them to mimic the extrovert when necessary. Because these skills are learned, they can be controlled somewhat more than the extrovert’s social skills… and some introverts have learned to control them precisely. That, coupled with the introvert’s ability to not get emotionally tied up in social relationships to the same level of the extroverts, makes it possible for the introvert to display superior social abilities. It is not uncommon for me to hear someone tell me, “There aren’t two other people alive who would consider me an introvert, but you’re right. I’ve gotten very good at faking it.”
- Empathy. One’s capacity to empathize with others is not related to his or her extroversion… though one’s capacity for turning off such empathy may be.
So what are introversion and extroversion to me? They are indications of where a person’s energy comes from: introverts are energized internally, while extroverts are energized by the give-and-take with the people around them.
In executives, I have found that there is also an ideal: an introvert with well developed social skills. Here’s why: Introverts can learn to be social (see above) easier than extroverts can learn to be solitary. For the true extrovert, asking him to close his door at 9pm after everyone’s gone home is like asking him to go without food. And to ask him to then make the tough call—the one that will make him unpopular with at least half his team the following day—is like asking him to poison everything in the pantry… The extrovert’s energy flows back and forth between him and the people around him, so making the tough call is doubly tough because the extrovert is going to feel the pain first himself and then again when all that negative energy circles back around.
Anecdotally, I have seen many more introverts who can muster the energy for parties and politics than extroverts who can stomach unpopularity.
One of the easiest ways to tell introverts apart from extroverts is by their comfort with silence. Ask a question… extroverts will start speaking before their answer is fully formed; introverts will wait. Another way is to listen to their decision making process… after the person has told you about all the models s/he used, and the deep analysis s/he conducted, the extrovert will generally indicate the presence of another individual—a friend, colleague, mentor, or boss. If you continue to ask about the person’s decision making process, you’ll notice that this is a trend: You’ll learn that the person picked his college because it had everything he wanted… and by the way, his best friend was going there. She chose her job because they were in the right city and the comp package was unbeatable… and by the way she had a personal connection with her new boss through a mutual friend. He decided to do the project because he had done all the competitive analyses and calculated the IRR and all looked good… and was validated when, during a conversation with a respected colleague, the colleague had blessed the plan. Introverts do not do this nearly as much.
Jason Seiden is CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax amplifies brands by aligning employees' online messaging.