The New Glass Ceiling: Are We Guilty of Holding Introverts Back?

There is a remarkable video of a talk that has recently been posted on the web by TED.com.   It’s about how introverts work and it is remarkable not just because this simple, 20 minute talk has notched up an incredible 1,270,000 views, despite only being posted a couple of weeks ago, but also because it is confidently delivered, against all her inclinations, by an avowed introvert.

As Susan Cain explains in her talk, public speaking is not a natural territory for introverts.  Very rarely will you see a conference stage or a boardroom paced by an introvert as they espouse their views on the matter in hand.  The people you see doing this are much more likely to be extroverts, who are significantly more comfortable than introverts with sharing the contents of their minds and hearts and far more inclined to engage in debate and discussion with others who agree or disagree.

Introverts, and that’s at least a considerable minority of the population (although estimations vary, with some arguing that it could include anything up to 50% of the population), just don’t tend to put themselves in these types of situations.  Reluctant to offer snap responses and preferring reflection and individual decision making to any common workplace practice such as arguing a case, negotiating an outcome or riding the wave of a discussion, introverts’ favourite spaces are far from the battlefields of meetings, public speaking or vigorous debate.

More importantly, they just don’t do their best thinking there. They struggle and usually fail to achieve their true potential in these environments, in stark opposition to extraverts who rely on external inputs and communication to stimulate their creativity, develop their ideas and help form their opinions.

So what then is introverted Susan Cain doing on stage commanding both a live and a huge global online audience?  An online audience that it is fair to say is one of the largest and quickest growing of all the TED.com talks: Susan has obviously hit on something big.

Well, she has written a book on introverts and, to be sure, there is no harm in a little self-promotion when you have something to sell.  However, listening to her talk, her genuine passion for chivvying the world into allowing introverts to do their thing, in their own way and into acknowledging the diversity of ways in which people contribute their talents is evident.  And she admits that, sometimes, introverts have to get out of their comfort zone and take up some of the space that extroverts inhabit in order that people can hear their ideas and so they can make their own contribution to the greater good.

How might Susan’s plea be relevant to customer service?  Isn’t everyone looking for that outgoing, confident, articulate and social being for their front line customer service role?  And in a service or sales environment don’t customers always prefer to be engaged by people who are chatty, interactive and convivial?

How would stereotypical introverts fare if you put them in an environment where they were required to interact all day with other people anyway?  Surely they would quickly discover that the job wasn’t for them and hightail it off to the safety of their libraries, computers or their bird-watching as soon as they could.  Wouldn’t they?

Well, probably not, at least not all of them.   There might be an archetypal introvert where this would be true, but there are all sorts of introverts, just as there are all sorts of extroverts.  They are not all painfully shy, tongue-tied wall-flowers who prefer solitude to company.   In fact, one of the amazing qualities of introverts is they often have incredible insight into human behaviour and emotion, since they spend much more time observing and listening to others.  And if people are of interest to them they are likely to have more inclination to analyse, interpret and reflect on how and why other people behave as they do.

Some introverts therefore are likely to be highly skilled interpreters of others’ communication, acutely sensitive to the emotions behind the words spoken and to have collected in their minds a catalogue of ways in which relationships work.

Their inclination to think before speaking often makes them great listeners – and certainly to appear to others as better listeners than many extroverts who often test out their understanding by speaking it out loud.  An introvert is more likely to reflect on it and continue listening.  People talking to introverts often feel  they have been able to say exactly what they wanted and that they have been heard in a way that they simply aren’t with someone who is contributing more to the back and forth, hurly burly of the conversation.

In short, some introverts are exactly the kind of people who would be able to build excellent relationships with customers.  True, the kind of service required in outgoing sales call centres may not be the kind they would enjoy or excel at.   But in those call centres where people are ringing in with concerns or complaints, or in face to face service environments where people are anxious or unwell or vulnerable (eg, health  or insurance providers), behaviourally minded introverts  could be ideally suited to much of the role requirements.

But how often do you see a job adverts asking for people-orientated introverts for a customer service role?  Or any role for that matter?  Probably never.  Any google search for customer service job advertisements reveals only terms such as “confident”, “outgoing” and “lively personality”.

Introverts inevitably miss out on these roles.  They probably rule themselves out when they see the descriptions of personality required and even if they apply, the fixation of customer service recruiters on extravert characteristics will inevitably mean that unless an introvert is very good at playing an extraverted role, they will fall at the first hurdle.

Susan Cain is right when she says that the world of work is missing a trick when they ignore the differences between extroverts and introverts and when education and workplaces are set up to bring out the best in extroverts, using open plan offices, team working and brainstorming groups for example.  Inevitably, if there is only one way that things are done, then the talents of introverts will be passed by, because what they need in order to do their best is different.

More than that, introverts are failing to get into many customer service workplaces at all because of organisations’ blinkered focus on the strengths of extroverts and a failure to give more careful consideration to the complexities of personality and what the role really requires.  (A quick check with some customers would be a good place to start:  being listened to would probably come somewhere near the top of customers’ “most-wanted” list.)

To make even more certain that introverts will be vastly under-represented in customer service jobs, selection processes are usually heavily biased in favour of extroverts, with candidates being given only a fraction of time at interview to demonstrate their communication skills and engaging personality.  Introverts may need a little more time or a better structured assessment to demonstrate their specific capabilities and unique talents which nevertheless may well be exactly what a particular customer service employee base is missing.

So I would extend Susan Cain’s appeal to the world to think about whether we are too often missing out on the unique talents of introverts because of the way that work is designed.  I would also like to see customer service employers assessing their roles with a more open mind as to the specific contributions that introverts are ideally placed to offer to customers and organisations.  A greater appreciation of the diversity of characteristics that contribute to meeting customers’ needs could be the catalyst for elevating bright and cheery customer service to truly connected customer relationships.

Links

http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html

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2 Comments to “The New Glass Ceiling: Are We Guilty of Holding Introverts Back?”

  1. For a very long time, negative words have been associated with introverts and Cain’s book is opening eyes to the the introverts inner nature. Nicely said…thank you

  2. Thank you for your comment – you are quite right and it is the extraverted world’s loss unfortunately.

    I am surprised and heartened though by how many people are interested in what Susan Cain is saying and I really hope that it marks the start of a change in how introverts’ qualities are understood, encouraged and appreciated.

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