Introverts Remain Underdogs in Business
Introverts haven’t yet dissolved our credibility gap when it comes to suitability for business leadership and success. There’s still prejudice against “innies” in business.
The first or second week in Journalism 101, students learn that unexpectedness is one of the top criteria for newsworthiness. The classic example: “Dog Bites Man” bombs as news while “Man Bites Dog” deserves a headline. We can reason backwards with this principle as well. If we find a lot of headlines on the theme of, say, “Child Sues Parents,” then there’s probably something startling about the situation. If people believed this was a normal event, the media wouldn’t use that general theme to get attention.
This line of thinking came up when I was researching the extent to which ideas about the strengths of introverts in business have spread among the general public. Has the average reader of the news absorbed the message that introverts in business are just as talented and skilled as extroverts – simply different in certain ways?
Judging from the headlines and articles that came up at the top of my Google searches, the answer is no. That introverts have what it takes for business success remains in “Man Bites Dog” territory.
Headlines That Subtly Disparage Introverts
Typical of what came up in my search was this February 2022 headline from the publication of the US Chamber of Commerce: “How to Be a Great Boss Even if You're an Introvert.” Note the qualifier “even if.” That indicates an expectation that the reader feels a great boss should be an extrovert.
Other 2022 headlines based on similar presuppositions:
· “Why Introverts Make Successful Entrepreneurs” – Forbes, January 2022; opening sentence: “There is a common misconception that only extroverts can succeed in business.”
· “Why Being an Introvert Is Your Secret Leadership Weapon” – Entrepreneur, July 2022; try reversing this to “why being an extrovert is your secret leadership weapon” and you’ll see the hidden assumption there.
· “3 Reasons Introverts Can Be Good Leaders” – Fast Company, July 2022; last sentence in first paragraph: “Just because someone identifies as an introvert doesn’t mean they’re not a good leader.”
· “Why Introverts Are Needed In the Workplace” – The Glass Hammer, January 2022; begins: “When you enter the corporate world as an introvert, one of the first hurdles you may have to overcome is the societal expectation that you should behave more like an extrovert.”
Unfortunately, the authors of these articles aren’t out-of-touch cultural dinosaurs. On the contrary, recent research corroborates their implicit view of introverts as the disparaged category in business. An often-cited study released in 2017, for example, found that corporate boards prefer hiring CEOs with outgoing personalities even though evidence shows that introverts more often surpass expectations in those jobs. And sometimes the authors add to their assessment of public attitudes with their own prejudiced statements.
A Case Study of Disparagement of Introverts
For instance, let’s look at a 2021 Harvard Business Review article titled, “Can Introverts Thrive in ‘Extroverted’ Careers?” By putting the word “extroverted” in quotation marks, the authors seem to be signaling up front that they don’t believe careers really match with personality types. They cite a 2016 research study revealing that certain high-paying business jobs were 25 percent more likely to go to extroverts. Note, however, how they describe this study’s findings: “One study found that more extroverted people — those who were more confident, sociable or assertive — had a 25% higher chance…”
Of the three adjectives the HBR authors use in that sentence to explain extroversion, I object to two of them: “confident” and “assertive.” Are extroverts inherently more confident than introverts? Certainly not. Introverts can be extremely confident of conclusions we’ve come to from personal study, analysis or introspection. Moreover, when we care less about what others think than about what we believe, we tend to act on our convictions. Similarly, the person who speaks up against a prevailing attitude – the assertive person – is just as likely, if not more so, to be an introvert.
I agree that extroverts may be more confident and assertive in some social situations – think of making loud suggestions to the crowd at a party – but not more confident or assertive in general.
The HBR article goes on to say, “Fields like consulting and investment banking, for example, are fields in which extroverts may thrive.” When I try to imagine what this unsourced statement might be based on, all I can come up with is the idea that those fields require good people skills, which fits the stereotype of extroverts. However, consulting and investment banking also require keen analytical skills, which may be a forte of introverts.
The article goes on to note three personality strengths of introverts that can serve them well in careers that appear geared to extroverts – excellent listening, deep relationships and adaptability. That seems right to me. Although each of those three points then gets expanded on with pertinent examples from the authors’ interviews, I don’t believe the authors went far enough elsewhere in their piece in challenging prevailing stereotypes of introverts.
As time goes on, I hope we see fewer headlines – and articles – counting on readers to be surprised at the capabilities and achievements of introverts.