Extroverts are the darlings of the modern office. Conventional wisdom holds that to succeed in the 21st century workplace, you need to be bold, outgoing, and highly energetic—and that your contributions are only worth as much as your ability to chat frequently, and excitedly, about them.
But I think conventional wisdom has gotten things wrong. There’s no doubt that extroverts can make excellent employees. But introverts have their own unique strengths. Consider the four qualities identified by leaders from companies including Apple, Microsoft, and SAP as essential for strong employees: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication.
In an information economy, critical thinking ability is a highly valued skill. The best workers need to be able to solve novel problems, weigh evidence, and construct persuasive arguments. In his insightful book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport refers to the fullest use of these abilities as “deep work,” and argues that it is crucial to success in our hyper-competitive global economy. Deep work, at its core, is the ability to stay with a problem long past when it gets hard.
This commitment and long-term focus lines up very well with the introverted personality. Laura Helgoe, in her book Introvert Power, argues that introverts are naturally drawn to the solitude and persistence required for deep work and have experienced its power throughout their lives. And the biggest impediments to deep work are a frenzy of interruptions in the name of constant connection—something introverts are known to avoid.
Creativity involves the ability to see the world in new ways—to uncover hidden patterns, discern new solutions, and create new products that transform the way we live. Neither extroverts nor introverts have a lock on creativity, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the noted psychologist. But each personality type has different creative strengths.
Extroverts are great at driving conversations and contributing to brainstorming sessions. Introverts, meanwhile, tend to listen closely to others and carefully observe as events unfold. This means that they can often perceive problems with greater clarity, depth, and objectivity. In a fascinating article in the Academy of Management Journal, researchers discovered that creative thinking is at its height just after people have paid attention to the negative aspects of their work. People who can clearly articulate problems, consider their root causes, and even feel nervous about their consequences tend to be the most creative—and that’s introverts to a T.
It’s no secret that introverts hate open-floor plans, designed by companies with the hope of creating more possibilities for “serendipitous connection.” But just because introverts prefer some measure of privacy doesn’t mean that they’re ineffective in teams. In fact, they can be quite strong in working collaboratively.
In a study from 2010, researchers established that the the best teams strike a balance between introverts and extroverts. Introverted leaders are most likely to succeed on teams dominated by extroverts. The introvert in charge will ask good questions, encourage novel thinking, and help the team to establish a shared, coherent vision of how to carry the work forward. Extroverted leaders, meanwhile, have a knack for energizing a more introverted team and helping them to make rapid progress.
The final of the 4-Cs, communication, has the most obvious connection to the introvert-extrovert divide. It seems like a foregone conclusion that extroverts would be better communicators than introverts, and this might hold true if you equate communication with extemporaneous speaking.
Communication, however, goes beyond one’s ability to speak off-the-cuff in public. Clear communication is marked by the ability to anticipate what your audience knows and then to effectively contextualize your message so that people can understand it. There are strong introvert advantages to this difficult task.
Chip and Dan Heath describe one such challenge to effective communication, which they call “The Curse of Knowledge.” In essence, once we know something—whether it’s how to build a boat or the history of the French Revolution—it becomes difficult for us to imagine what it’s like for other people not to know that thing. In this way, our knowledge has “cursed” us, making it difficult to craft messages that are intelligible to those who don’t share our experience.
Introverts, particularly shy introverts, may have an advantage to overcoming the curse of knowledge. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Megan Garber describes shyness (sometimes referred to as anxious introversion) as an “acknowledgement of the vast distance that separates one human mind from another.” In essence, introverts have a strong tendency to actively reflect upon and refine their own thinking. Such intense and ongoing metacognitive reflection provides greater access to the memory of what it was like before they gained their new knowledge. This provides valuable insight for them as to figure out how to help others grasp new information or skills.
Although it is sometimes true that introverts can experience a disadvantage in the 21st-century workplace, the issue isn’t that introverted people are less talented or valuable. Rather, it’s that too many managers fail to recognize the strengths of their quieter employees. Providing private spaces where introverts can work effectively and structuring meetings so that introverts have a designated time to contribute their perspectives, for example, can help ensure that our workplaces draw from the strengths of both talkative and quiet types. In corporate parlance—that’s a win-win.