Do the loudest in your team win the most air time by default?

The loudest in your team...

Could you unconsciously be excluding potential talented leaders from your team, organisation or business? Chances are, if you have never thought about how introverts operate in the workplace, you may well be.

An unconscious bias toward the louder, more gregarious members of your team could be costing you. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, points to research that shows that the voluble [extroverts] are considered smarter than the reticent [introverts] even though "there is zero correlation between the gift of the gab and good ideas".

Not only might unconscious bias be stopping you from tapping into all the creative ideas and valuable input your full team has to offer, but you may also have "closet introverts” passing undetected because they are pretending to be extroverts.

“It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves. We live in a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt,” says Cain.

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology”.

Have you ever had someone describe another person to you as introvert, then given you a knowing look, as though that one word is all that is required, no further explanation necessary? I’ve seen that happen often, and it’s clear that the inference wasn’t a positive one.

Cain also makes the point that introverts living under the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are.

You may have noticed the disdain people sometimes show for women who display stereotypical feminine qualities in leadership (see The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership). 

In both cases, it’s obvious that the risk of falling prey to unconscious biases is high. This could be a tragic lost opportunity. Some of the world’s most creative, talented or influential people have been introverts – namely Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Ghandi, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Chopin, and more modern day creatives such as Stephen Spielberg, JK Rowling and Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc.

Actor Emma Watson, also an introvert, received a standing ovation for her recent speech to the United Nations in which she said “fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating … For the record, feminism, by definition is: The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”.

So, just as being pro-women’s rights doesn’t equate to being anti-male, giving introverts an opportunity to be heard doesn’t mean “up with introverts and down with extroverts”.  As Cain points out, there’s space for everyone and, in an ideal world, that would be equal space. (See her short animated video on the topic).

The opportunity

Translate this potential for bias into the workplace, and you can see the opportunity for change.

As with any behaviour change, however, awareness has to come first. We can’t expect to do anything about our biases if we are not conscious of them. (Try the simple flower-insect Implicit Association Test to uncover some of yours. Don’t be too disconcerted if you have an automatic preference – apparently, everyone is biased. If you’re really brave, you could try the Race IAT. Note that half of the people who take this test get a result they don’t expect. You can read more in Blind spot: Hidden biases of good people).

If you are a manager or team leader, think about how you communicate and engage with the introverts in your team:

  • Do you structure your team meetings in a way that gives everyone an opportunity to be heard, or do the loudest win the most air time by default?
  • During your one on one meetings, do you really give the introverts space to offer their views? You might be surprised by their insightful, and often helpful, observations.
  • And when it comes to promotions and career opportunities, do you fall into the trap of overlooking the quiet ones in favour of the more confident, gregarious members of your team?

Point being, we need to educate ourselves about our biases or risk inadvertently missing out on the value that all people in the team can bring to the table.

Lucy Sanderson-Gammon, MBA, is director of Luminous Consulting Limited. She provides management and communications consultancy and short term contracting services, as well as business and career coaching and management communications training.

This article is also available on LinkedIn and on the CW Observer Blog.