Center for Innovative Cultures

Helping organizations thrive by unleashing the talent, passion, and potential of people at work

Introverts

I have been reading Susan Cain’s interesting book, Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  She makes the case that (unfortunately) Extroversion is the “ideal” personality archetype, especially in the business world, and catalogues the toll this preference has both for organizations and especially for introverted people.  Cain treads a fine line between outright advocacy of introversion, and recognizing the genuine upsides and downsides of both extroverts and introverts.  In my own experience (and I am a strong introvert), I have not found all extroverts to be empty-headed glad-handers (as Cain’s characterization might suggest).  Many are among the most compassionate and giving people I know.  Similarly, I have not found all introverts to be kind and gentle.  Some are true misanthropes.  While reading this book, I have been struck by reflecting on how W. L. Gore & Associates has managed to recognize the differences and capacities of extroverts and introverts and found a way to allow both to flourish and to contribute at Gore. 

The Myers-Briggs version of Extroversion-Introversion was introduced to Gore in the mid-1980s by Jim Buckley, then the recognized global manufacturing leader at Gore.  Jim used the book Please Understand Me to expose Associates to the different temperament dimensions:  Extroversion-Introversion; Intuitive-Sensing; Thinking-Feeling; and Judging-Perceiving (which really is a dimension of Seeking Closure-Remaining Open).  The impact of the book, and its insights, was quite profound at Gore.  Many people suddenly had their eyes opened to what they already “knew” but couldn’t act on—People are different!  Rather suddenly, Associates started to understand that many of the “personality conflicts” they had with other Associates, and which they were trying to resolve by convincing others to be more “like them,” wasn’t a particularly productive or fair strategy.   Again, rather suddenly, Associates began to accept and even embrace the idea that there were upsides and downsides to Extroversion, or Intuition, or to Thinking, or to Closure—and the issue was to try, in each different situation, to maximize the upsides and minimize the downsides of each temperament.

Another impact that the Please Understand Me book had was that Associates were given permission, encouraged really, to be their “true selves.”  Introverts didn’t have to pretend to like 250-person meetings.  Judging types who didn’t like open-ended, seemingly-interminable discussions didn’t have to pretend they were okay with such discussions.  They could express their frustrations.  Sometimes the group would agree, and cut to the chase and make a decision.  Sometime, discussion would continue anyway, but it would be less objectionable to the “J” personalities, because they had expressed their point of view and understand that the others weren’t just being done in by “analysis-paralysis,” but felt a real need for further discussion.

Gore had always believed in cross-functional teams (R&D, manufacturing, sales) because the culture held that diverse perspectives generally led to better business decisions.  Now diversity included temperament types.  There was a recognition that it was good to have both Intuitive-Thinkers and Sensing-Feeling types making decisions that affected Associates – together they would have a better handle on how certain decisions would be understood or felt by large groups of Associates.  There was no presumption that there was “one” type ideal for any set of commitments at Gore.  Indeed over the years, the CEOs at Gore have been an even mix of extraverts and introverts.

For me, personally as an introvert, facilitating 3-day corporate meetings with 200 Associates was not easy. Dealing intensely with all those people would wipe me out.   I needed down time each day to regroup.  And when the meeting was over, I could barely muster the energy for an immediate debrief.  However, being an introvert did not mean I was incapable of working a 200+ person meeting.  It just meant that doing so “took” energy and did not “give” energy as it might for an extravert.

Luckily, I was in an environment where people accepted this temperamental difference in me, and I was treated respectfully. Everybody would know that I would be wiped out and we could all joke about it. People would cut me slack after the meeting, and not expect me to do much more than go away and recover for a week. Instead of being made to feel that I wasn’t “up to the task,” or avoiding the task altogether, I was able to contribute according to my abilities, but allowed to recover after the effort. In other words, I could bring my whole self to work.

This capacity to “bring my whole self to work”—to allow me to be an introvert and not force me to pretend I was an extravert—was fundamental to the way we accepted all kinds of “differences” among Associates.    I read an interesting study  (Luigi Giusa et al., The Value of Corporate Culture,” September 2013) about the financial performance of the companies that rank higher on The Great Places To Work ® Institute’s annual survey to determine the “Best Companies in America to Work for.”  Those companies that make the list perform better than those that do not.  There’s one question on the survey that seems particularly relevant to this discussion about introverts—and extraverts.  And that’s the question about whether “I can be myself around here.” This question gets at the notion--as Isabel Meyers would have it—we all have gifts, differing.  It’s just in some companies, that reality is accepted.  And in others, it’s not.