Business psychologist and coach Janet Evans says people with introvert and extravert personalities are good at different things – and successful creative companies need both to thrive.
A recent piece of research, widely reported in the press, found that comedians had very unusual personality characteristics. Like many other high-functioning creative people they score highly in the tests designed to diagnose psychosis (schizophrenia and bipolar disorder). But comics have a particular profile. They score very highly on two apparently contradictory traits: they are simultaneously unhappy introverts who avoid social contact, and outrageous impulsive extraverts who seek it out.
This is consistent with the high levels of bipolar disorder diagnosed among creative people, though comedians appear to experience both the poles (the depressive low and the “manic” high) at the same time.
In my earlier blog on the creative personality, I reported the hypothesis that the manic phase of bipolar involves very fast processing and link-making at unconscious level, which results in new and surprising insights into the world; while the depressive phase both provides some of the material for those insights, by taking the artist to dark places, and the need to create to escape from those difficult thoughts.
The researchers conclude that the extreme profile of comedians suggests that their outrageously extravert performances have a similar function in medicating the performer against his or her desperate mood.
They quote Stephen Fry: “There are times when I’m doing QI, and I’m going “ha, ha, yeah, yeah”, and inside I’m going “I want to fucking die. I.. want… to… fucking…die”.
If many comics are simultaneously outrageous extraverts and unhappy introverts, what about the rest of us? In my last blog I said how useful it could be to understand something about our own and other people’s personalities in a systematic way.
In this blog I want to introduce you to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). This, unlike the instrument used in the comics study, is not designed to diagnose the extreme traits associated with psychosis (or even neurosis, from which we all suffer to some degree), but provides a simple, unthreatening but profound model to help us see what’s going on in the interactions which make up our normal working lives.
The MBTI has been in very wide use for 60 years in all walks of life in the West. It measures a number of dimensions, but this blog focuses on Introversion and Extraversion, where its assumption (as with the other dimensions) is that people’s comfortable, “default”, state ( their “preference”) is one or the other, to varying degrees.
So, which of the following sounds like you?
1. “After a hard and stressful day I like to unwind and recharge my batteries by:
(a) Having a drink and a conversation with a group of friends in a bar”, or
(b) “Having a quiet dinner with my partner and watching some TV”.
2. “When I get a really good idea, I like to develop it by:
(a) Brainstorming with some colleagues – I understand its implications much better when I’ve talked it through”, or
(b) “Setting time aside to think it through on my own, maybe in writing, before I talk to anyone about it”.
3. (a) “I like open plan offices – there’s a buzz of energy, which energises me, and they make it so much easier to communicate.”
(b)“ I hate open plan offices – there are so many distractions that I just can’t think.”
In each case, if (a) felt more like you, then it’s likely that you’re an extravert. If (b), then you’re probably an introvert.
We all have a picture of extraverts as gregarious, outgoing people, and of introverts as solitary souls most at home in libraries. But actually it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Extraverts need external stimulation to perform well. As the word suggests, they get their energy from turning outwards, interacting with stimulating environments and people.
Some even find it easier to concentrate on a difficult task in a noisy, buzzy environment, like a busy office or coffee shop. As soon as a thought crosses their mind, they want to say it out loud, and share it. With an extravert, what you see is what you get.
Introverts, on the other hand, are very sensitive to external stimulation. They process everything that comes their way, and if there’s too much happening round them, they get overloaded and distressed. They get their energy from turning inwards, putting all the stimuli and data together to make sense of them.
With introverts, the important things are happening internally, and are not obvious to the outsider. Someone suggested that when you talk an extravert, you’re talking directly to the CEO, but when you talk to an introvert, you’re talking to the CEO’s PA – the CEO is in the inner office and you don’t necessarily know what he or she thinks.
The recent book about introversion, Quiet, by Susan Cain was acclaimed as “an intriguing and potentially life-altering examination of the human psyche that is sure to benefit both introverts and extraverts alike”.
This is because we live in a world which favours extraverts – a world which values quick thinking, personal impact, being “out there” networking – and tends to undervalue introverts.
But introverts and extraverts are good at different things – the creative media industries need both and they need each other.
We obviously need the extravert qualities – people who feel a compulsion to engage in an active and energetic way, who love new experiences and the challenge of constant interaction with new problems and people. Because they are always picking up external data, some extraverts have an almost uncanny ability to foresee how a scheme will unfold, where the support and where the obstacles will be.
But introverts are very good at something equally vital – taking in and processing the relevant information and then engaging in sustained thinking. They will spend hours or days wrangling with all aspects of a problem, and emerge with a solution which the extraverts couldn’t have reached in years by their preferred method of brainstorming and discussion.
So, introverts and extraverts are good at different things. The best leaders recognise this and act accordingly. They need different conditions to thrive – in particular, introverts need time and a quiet space to think, they hate being asked to respond immediately or being corralled in endless meetings, and they may prefer to develop ideas and plans in writing rather than face-to-face. Many highly creative people are introverts – they have rich and detailed internal visions, but often fail to communicate them well enough – an extravert skill, which they need to focus on and learn to do because it’s not their natural mode.
You can “diagnose” introversion and extraversion very easily by using the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. It’s really worth doing – it can be revelatory.
If you know you’re an introvert, you stop worrying about the fact that big parties and meetings drain your energy, and evolve ways to manage yourself better, guarding your precious and productive thinking time and focusing your extravert effort on the times when it’s really important that you are “out there” engaging and communicating.
If you’re an extravert, you realise that you need to be stimulated to give your best (you can’t lock yourself away for three days to write the business plan – it’s much better to talk it through with your colleagues). You also understand that your introvert colleagues may not appear to think as quickly as you, but that if you give them time, they may well come up with the crucial insight.
It’s important to remember that the MBTI model emphasises the notion of preference. We all have a preference between introversion and extraversion to varying degrees, but we can all do both when it’s required. Introverts are capable of extraverting and vice versa.
It’s really useful for teams to understand each others’ personalities. It will transform the way in which their members interact, give them a language to talk about their differences and complementarity, and really help them get the best from themselves and each other. I always start here with new coaching clients and I really recommend it!
The author: Janet Evans is a business psychologist, executive coach and consultant on leadership and strategic planning, with an MSC in Organisational Psychology and a Diploma in Coaching and Mentoring. She works mainly in the creative media industries and the public sector, having been a senior leader in Whitehall for many years. She runs her own consultancy, Adsum Consulting Limited, and can be contacted on email@example.com
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