Introverts in Business: A Conversation with Dr. Sara Beckman
Are you an introvert? Have you ever been overwhelmed by an active team dynamic and felt a lack of understanding? Or are you an extrovert who has teamed with introverts and don’t know how their “quiet time” works? People come in diverse personalities and backgrounds. It’s inevitable that we have to collaborate with people who are different from ourselves. However, it’s never easy and sometimes even frustrating.
I was happy to talk with Dr. Sara Beckman, a teaching professor at the Haas School of Business, about introverts in business and how diverse individuals can better collaborate as a team. Her Haas journey has evolved from teaching operations management to product development to design and innovation. Notably, unlike most professors I’ve met so far, Dr. Beckman is more of an introvert, whom I believe can provide insights on the topic of introverts in business.
What’s your definition of “introversion”?
Early definitions of introversion and extroversion – going back to Carl Jung – suggested that extroverts are primarily focused on the outer or objective world, while introverts are more inner focused. Extroverts were described as those whose “emotions flow out easily into bodily expression and action,” whereas introverts are more slow and reserved in expressing themselves, preferring to reflect and deliberate more before taking action. A former colleague, Jane Creech, who helped us launch our teaming curriculum at Haas, used to distinguish introverts and extroverts by how they wind down at the end of a busy day. Extroverts, Creech suggested, liked to decompress by hanging out with friends, while introverts prefer quiet time alone to recharge themselves.
I think that people sometimes assume that all introverts are inherently quiet and extroverts are inherently outspoken. I’ve had students ask me why, if I’m an introvert, I chose a profession in which I have to speak and interact with others a lot. The answer is that I love my interactions with others – particularly in the classroom – but at the end of a busy day, I definitely need time alone to reflect, regroup and recharge. Now, I’m not strongly introverted, so my need for processing time may not show as much as for other more strongly introverted people.
How does introversion relate to your life and influence your relationship with people?
It plays out differently in different parts of life. I might process very quickly and share what I’m thinking in an abstract academic conversation. But if it’s a more personal or emotional conversation, I might need to process that in my head a little bit, instead of just saying what I’m thinking or feeling. Our Collaborative Innovation, taught jointly this year among Business, Theater and Dance Performance Studies, and Public Policy, provides a good example of how introversion and extraversion play out. My co-teacher, Lisa Wymore, who is on the faculty in TDPS, expresses her emotions or reactions through performance. I’m much less comfortable doing so. She did an exercise in class that helped me understand the difference between intuition (in my head) and gut feeling, which I might have considered to be the same. We had to close our eyes and respond with gestures to words such as anger, joy, etc. There were times when I would react – from my gut – to a word, and then think about it and adjust my gesture. Lisa would simply react. For me, the exercise represented the difference between just expressing emotions and wanting to process before doing so.
People distinguish being shy or anxious from being introverted, and I think that is an important distinction. I was pretty quiet in high school and somehow got talked into taking a speech class. I still remember shaking like a leaf when I stood up to give my first speech – thankfully in front of a very patient and encouraging teacher. By my senior year, I was competing in speech and debate tournaments, reciting Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss among other things! Although I overcame my shyness, I am still an introvert who likes to have time to process my thoughts and feelings before expressing them.
Any challenges or advantages of being an introvert?
Susan Cain’s book Quiet, which makes a case for the underappreciated power of introverts, nicely lays out the challenges and advantages of having introverts on your team. The benefits of having introverts on your team is that they are, as Cain puts it, “highly sensitive, taking in data from their external environments more thoroughly than their extrovert peers. This can be extremely useful, particularly on the kinds of innovation tasks we undertake in classes like Collaborative Innovation, Systems Thinking, and Applied Innovation. Introverts listen carefully to others (and people like to be listened to!) and so learn more from them. I particularly like to listen to others and capture what I’m hearing graphically, in mind maps for example, that help me – and I hope others – organize what they are hearing. I think that these characteristics of introverts are particularly helpful to teams as they observe/notice and frame/reframe the challenges they are working through.
A big challenge for introverts is that extroversion, as Susan Cain describes, is portrayed in Western cultures as the ideal of success. There are many factors that have caused this to be the case, some more subtle than others. Because extroverts speak up more quickly and frequently, they get heard more in discussions, particularly if they neglect to provide space or invitations for the introverts to contribute. In the classroom, this often shows up in the speed with which people raise their hands and then get called upon. As a faculty member, you hope that somebody will raise their hand, because you’re afraid of silence or no response. Therefore, you’ll call on the first person who does. I tried in my own class to wait to see if anybody else would raise their hand. But it’s really hard to stand up there when there are hands already up. I think there’s a problem inherent in participation-based classes that we weigh more extroverted students in this way. And, if you are not careful on teams with multiple extroverts, the introverts may not ever be heard.
Do you think that introverts are underprivileged in the business world? What are some ways to frame and reframe this belief?
If you buy Susan Cain’s argument, introverts are definitely underappreciated in the business world. They don’t like making small talk, which is arguably important to getting to know and work with your colleagues. The confidence exuded by extroverts is often perceived as correlated with competence, thus disadvantaging introverts. The constant interruptions and open workspace plans do not accommodate the need for space to reflect and think that many introverts have. So, some of the factors required for success in the workplace certainly favor extroverts.
That said, places like Silicon Valley revere good engineering and technical prowess, and it isn’t unusual to see introverts in those engineering and technology development roles. I was once told that there were more introverted CEOs in Silicon Valley than might be expected based on their numbers in the general population, but I can’t recall a specific citation supporting that assertion. If that is the case, it is possible that in tech companies, introverts are more accepted.
Although there are almost certainly changes needed in culture and organizational design to facilitate empowerment of introverts to contribute more, I’m a firm believer that the rubber meets the road for many of the diversity and inclusion challenges that exist today at the level of the team. That’s a core driver for the creation of our “Teaming by Design” curriculum. Without learning more about their introverted teammates, extroverts might assume that everyone on the team will speak up readily because they would themselves. Extroverts need to learn to invite their quieter teammates into the conversation. The assumption that quieter people have nothing to say or contribute is wrong. So, the question becomes – how do you invite quieter people to engage?
What are some ways for different individuals to collaborate? As a professor, how can you help the introverts participate in class?
Many years ago, when I worked for Hewlett Packard, we took some sort of personality test (I don’t remember which one right now). My profile showed up as explorer-promoter while the person next to me was scored as a concluder-producer. He took one look at my page and said, “It’s people like you who drive people like me crazy.” I remember thinking, “Oh! I never meant to drive anybody crazy!” But then I understood that he liked a lot of quiet time to do the work he was doing. He didn’t like people stopping by, checking in with him and suggesting too many different things to do at once. That was an important learning experience for me, and I think it applies to introverts and extroverts today.
When we started teaching teaming some years ago, we would provide very clear actions for students on teams like, “If you’re an extrovert, here’s how you can involve introverts… and if you’re an introvert, here’s how you can work better with the extroverts…” Being explicit about it, in my experience, helps a lot. You just have to trust and be empathetic with each other. For extroverts, you might need to understand that if you want to hear from the introverts, you have to invite them to be part of the conversation or appreciate that their quiet time is being used to process things. When they’re ready, they’ll jump in.
We did the same thing with David Kolb’s Learning Styles in our Collaborative Innovation class. You learned about your own learning style and where your preferred fit is in the innovation cycle used in the class. Diverging learners live in the concrete world, observing and noticing what is happening around them, while assimilating learners operate in more concrete space, framing and reframing situations. Both diverging and assimilating learners tend to be more introverted. Converging learners, like assimilating learners, are also abstract conceptualizers, but engage in active experimentation coming up with ideas to solve a problem. Accommodating learners are also active experimenters, but do so in concrete space. Converging and accommodating learners tend to be more extroverted.
If you understand the learning styles of people on your team, it helps you understand your team dynamic in a different way. As an aside, I should say that I know people don’t like to be sorted into boxes by these kinds of evaluations. My response to that is to ask if, in your first semester at Cal, you categorized the people in your class. I regularly hear people say, “I want to work with that person and not with that other person because that person is X, Y or Z.” I know they are categorizing their peers, so why not use any number of available instruments to understand others in a more meaningful way? It can only help create better relationships and more productive teaming.
For example, Professor Lisa Wymore and I both understand that I’m an assimilator and she’s an accommodator. During the mock city council meeting we had in Collaborative Innovation, our learning style differences showed up clearly. When students didn’t want to get up and act out a rolet, my response was, “OK, let’s talk it through,” because I’m most comfortable doing that. But Lisa would say, “No, no, no, no, no! Get up and act it out!” It’s so clear to me that we have very different learning style preferences, and it’s fun to recognize we’d kind of both gone into our comfort zone, even when we’re jointly teaching a collaboration class like that.
The idea is to have people recognize that not everybody on the team has the same styles of learning, personalities, and capabilities. The more you can understand that, the better you can understand where the person is coming from and how to collaborate. There are a lot of examples of this need for better understanding in the teaming feedback we provide in team-based classes. Some students might say something like, “This person didn’t contribute anything to our meetings.” But then you found out that person took notes for the whole meeting. He might have thought taking notes was a contribution, while the rest of the team didn’t care about the notes. That’s a simple example, but the notion of really appreciating that people make choices that make sense to them and understanding why they make the choices they do really helps you stop judging them and connect with them in a different way.
Do you have any advice for students who want to enter the business world, but might be bothered by their introverted personality?
I would start by reading Susan Cain’s “Quiet”! Understanding your own propensities and knowing that you are not alone is a great place to begin. You can’t change the workplace norms that privilege extroverts overnight, but you can engage in small actions in your everyday life to help bridge the divide. That might start with stepping up around extroverts on your team and helping them understand your preferred team dynamic. If you just be honest to your teammates and say something like, “Hey, I’m introverted. I probably won’t speak up as often as some of you, because I’m listening and processing the information. But I welcome you to invite me to speak up since I don’t know how to do it naturally.” If we can share these things with our teams, they’ll have a better chance understanding that you’re not just sitting there doing nothing. And I believe that it can really make a difference!