Understanding Introverts and Extroverts in the Workplace

By Emma Hickey

Ever since Carl Jung coined the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” in 1921, they’ve been a part of the zeitgeist. These terms have become one of our favorite ways to describe others and understand ourselves, especially in the context of the workplace. I’m an introvert or he’s an extrovert is often used as shorthand for communicating whole swaths of personality traits and characteristics. Introverts are quiet and reserved. Extroverts are loud and outgoing. Introverts are better at listening, extroverts are better at speaking. Introverts have a few close friends, extroverts have many acquaintances. The list of characteristics associated with introversion and extroversion goes on and on, but they all miss the point. There’s only one thing that separates introverts from extroverts and that thing is how they get their energy. Distinctions based on anything else are misleading and can lead to unfair assumptions about your peers both inside and outside of the office.

You might be wondering what that means, exactly—how they get their energy? Introverts recharge by spending time alone and extroverts recharge by spending time with other people. Conversely, introverts lose energy when spending an extended amount of time with other people and extroverts lose energy when spending an extended amount of time alone. That’s all these terms mean, and while that’s a significant thing to be aware of about yourself and the people around you, it’s important that we pull out all personality assumptions from these terms.

Sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, the concepts of introversion and extroversion come up around the office. You might think to yourself that your extraverted boss will never understand an introvert like you, or perhaps your coworker always asks you to lead phone calls with clients because they’ve labeled you as an extrovert. Part of the reason introversion and extroversion are such common concepts in the workplace is because they’re lumped into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test, which is a popular tool used in business school and, by extension, the business world. All 16 MBTI personality types begin with either an “E” for extrovert or an “I” for introvert. We wrote a whole blog about the MBTI (and astrology!), but suffice to say, while these are fun ways to think about and talk about each other, the MBTI (and astrology!) is not hard science. While it can be easy to put everyone on your team into the box of either introvert or extrovert—and then keep them there—reducing your peers to a stereotype and then unconsciously, or consciously, refusing to adjust that stereotype based on increased data, will lead to more conflicts than compromises.

Office dynamics come down to personalities, and we have to work to understand each other’s personalities beyond the stereotypes of introverts and extroverts. Taking the time to consider and understand each other more complexly will allow us to work together peacefully and productively. So the next time you catch yourself defining your coworker as either an introvert or an extrovert, question why. Ask—what did this person do to make me think they’re extroverted? Isolate and take note of the specific characteristic, not just the catch all term of “extrovert.” Focus on the qualities of the person, not on the label you want to use for them. Though the stakes are a bit lower, it’s a similar mode of thinking to what we described in our Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace blog post. And remember—even Jung himself didn’t want us to categorize people based on his concepts of introverts and extroverts. He famously  said, “there is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.” People are more complicated than that.

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