Going against the grain, or sailing against the tide?

Every culture, however broadly or narrowly you define it, tends to have its ideals, including the type of people that it holds up for admiration. We may think of etiquette as being the preserve of delicate ladies in lace gloves, but every situation has its own protocols. ‘Honour amongst thieves’ is a type of etiquette too. But cultural ideals embrace personal and behavioural styles as well as social manners. Being ‘the ideal’ type can be about more than which fork you use for the fish course or where you were schooled. Consider the following quotes:

On the surface, I was an all-American teenager, a rah-rah cheerleader type. But deep down I was a shy and lonely outsider. It took some long years of self-reflection to break through my old fears and come into my own.
Sela Ward

I was this shy, introverted kid and through the game and through athletics I was able to gain a lot more confidence and express myself on the field. It is about enjoying themselves and that’s what I could tell about all of these girls. They played hard, respected the game and just had fun doing it.
Mia Hamm

I can’t speak for you, of course, but I got one consistent message: extroverts and extroversion are more admirable than introverts and introversion. The ‘rah-rah cheerleader’ trumps the ‘shy, introverted kid’: the bold, fun-loving and gregarious extrovert is not just the type to admire, but the type to become if at all possible. Introverts are the ones who get their heads wedged in toilet bowls in high school, while their extrovert peers are the ones who get the applause/prize/girl/boy.

As an introvert (I write – what did you expect? Fireworks? Dancing girls?), I thought of Garrison Keillor’s wonderful short story about a fictional pressure group, Shy Rights: the following extract might give some of the flavour, but you can read the full story online:

Discrimination against the shy is our country’s number one disgrace in my own personal opinion. Millions of men and women are denied equal employment, educational and recreational opportunities, and rewarding personal relationships simply because of their shyness. These injustices are nearly impossible to identify, not only because the shy person will not speak up when discriminated against, but also because the shy person almost always anticipates being denied these rights and doesn’t ask for them in the first place. (In fact, most shys will politely decline a right when it is offered to them.)

Keillor is being comical, of course, although not with a point. But the important distinctions are not just between comedy and real injustice, even if laughter is an effective way of sugaring bitter pills: introversion is not the same as either shyness or reclusiveness. Introversion is a preference – something that the individual can work with or against, an indication of an unconscious preoccupation.

In the realms of MBTI (read my earlier experience of completing this psychometric instrument and receiving feedback), Introversion and Extraversion are opposing attributes on a spectrum concerned with Communicating and Energising. It is, of course, an important aspect of working with MBTI that neither preference is inherently preferable: compare the two qualities below in an extract from Jenny Rogers’ Sixteen Personality Types at Work In Organisations:

Extraversion (E)
Potentially helpful Potentially hindering
Being outgoing and sociable; being spontaneous and enthusiastic; enjoying talking through ideas with peers and the people you manage; demonstrating energy Overwhelming people; finding listening difficult; wanting to get to action too quickly; being easily distracted; appearing to have a ‘butterfly’ approach
Introversion (I)
Potentially helpful Potentially hindering
A reflective style which allows people space; listening attentively; concentrating on what is happening below the surface; staying calm Appearing withdrawn or moody; lacking in social confidence; seeming over-intense; disliking large meetings; appearing lacking in presence

I also remembered another earlier post where the introvert/extravert divide was mentioned, when David Owen identified introverts as less susceptible to hubris. It would be tempting to make the time-honoured remark about fools and angels if I weren’t feeling self-conscious about how mentioning it might portray me … but two observations by successful actors illustrate how working with your preferences for the requirements of a professional role might feel:

I think I’m a weird combination of deeply introverted and very daring. I can feel both those things working.
Helen Hunt

I’m an introvert at heart… And show business – even though I’ve loved it so much – has always been hard for me.
Roy Rogers

But this article was prompted to start by reference to culture rather than individual preference by the work of Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, who argues that – at least in ‘the West’ – the world has a cultural bias towards the extrovert, valuing their positive contributions over those of introverts and disadvantaging the latter. Here is one example of her making that point (while also addressing the confusion of introversion and shyness) from her blog:

I understand why non-anxious introverts feel so frustrated when people treat them as if they’re shy. It’s inherently annoying to be misunderstood, to be told that you’re something that you’re not. Anyone who has walked down the street deep in thought and been instructed by a stranger to smile – as if he were depressed, rather than mentally engaged – knows how maddening this is.

Also, shyness implies submissiveness. And in a competitive culture that reveres alpha dogs, one-downsmanship is probably the most damning trait of all.

Yet this is where the shy and the introverted, for all their differences, have in common something profound. Neither type is perceived by society as alpha, and this gives both types the vision to see how alpha status is overrated, and how our reverence for it blinds us to things that are good and smart and wise.

(Those of you who are not shy and feel motivated to talk up about this judgment of introverts in a quiet way can print her ‘Manifesto for Introverts’ as a poster to pin up wherever you feel most comfortable.) As someone who has had the – according to Cain, very common – experience of being asked at a job interview if being ‘quiet’ is going to be a real challenge in a potential role, I can very much see her point.

Conversations with friends have also sometimes confirmed this: one lifelong friend who could be seen as the epitome of the quiet reserved scientist has now been a senior lecturer for many years. He knows that this confounds the expectations of people who know him socially, but doesn’t agree with them: he may not be the type to swing from chandeliers or enjoy an evening’s small talk, but he’s passionate about engaging his students in automotive engineering. He serves that passion by lecturing: he may be acting against superficial type, but not against underlying inclination and motivation.

Cain’s work is perhaps a valuable reminder that ‘the ideal type’ is an unachievable goal that diminishes our real contributions in our pursuit of it. [As Jenny Rogers points out: ‘Yet the idea persists that in current management thinking that it is possible to be faultless’.] It’s a point that is raised by many writers elsewhere, although their focus is on the other MBTI scales. The 2002 Lewis Institute document, Leadership & Temperaments, contrasts type distributions in the general population against those in different occupational levels and the differences are highly striking. As they observe:

You will note that the Idealists [NF] and Artisans [SP] are almost absent from the executive ranks, which are dominated by the Guardians [SJ] and Rationals [NT]. We will see that this has a profound meaning for how organizations are managed. What is really striking, and is not shown here, is that for executives, if you look at all 16 types, you find that among the SJ category, the SFJ types represent only 1.4 percent and the STJ comprise the remaining 60.1 percent. That is, the feeling component of one’s type is a detriment to climbing to the top of the corporate ladder.

For Cain and other introverts living in quiet hope, however, the tides of cultural – and especially business cultural – trends may yet turn in their favour. In a review of Peter Drucker’s Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Walter Geldart commented:

We observe with personality type theory that the old assumptions are associated with a management style that emphasizes concreteness (S), principles (T), and systematic planning (J). The old paradigm is an STJ model, as has frequently been mentioned by Pat Dinkelaker and John Fudjack […]. Drucker confirms that this is the case.

Assumption 6 in particular – “management is internally focused” – arises out of the preferences and biases of the I-S-T-J Personality Type, widely reported by the MBTI for business managers. In a study of the MBTI Type distribution of participants in the Center for Creative Leadership, the ISTJ (18.2%) and ESTJ (16.0%) are identified as accounting for more than one-third of the participants.

If Geldart – and Drucker – are right, organisational culture and leadership paradigm have been sharing a chicken and egg scenario until recently, but as the need for different organisations emerges, the construct for the type of leader that best serves them must change too. The certainty of ‘the old model’ is fading, and its ideal of the leader type will fade with it. While we wait for the future to unfold, us introverts can seek occasional solace in the library, where we might find consoling quotes that date from a little further back:

All sorrow has its root in man’s inability to sit quiet in a room by himself.
Blaise Pascal

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