Understanding Introversion and Extroversion


Personality differences often pose challenges for people who need to work together. One such difference is that which separates introverts and extroverts. Just by being themselves, introverts and extroverts can drive each other crazy. But they can also benefit from each other's strengths. In this column, Naomi Karten explains this personality difference and helps introverts and extroverts better understand and appreciate each other.

During lunch with several teammates, Margie vented about a coworker, Kevin. "He's so quiet. I never know what he's thinking," she said. "Sometimes, I think he's judging me. I wish he was more of a team player, but he's too aloof. He never even comes to lunch with us."

Meanwhile, in the meeting room to which Kevin often sneaks away for a few minutes of cherished silence, he mused, "Being with Margie is so draining. She never stops talking and never wants to know my ideas. Everything she says seems to lead to something else, and she keeps changing her mind as she yakety-yaks."

Many factors could account for the frustrations people experience as a result of others' behaviors, but a key factor in this case is that Margie is an extrovert and Kevin is an introvert. This is not to say that extroverts always talk non-stop or that introverts are invariably reserved. In fact, both introverts and extroverts can talk your head off. And both need down time to recharge. But what, when, and how each communicates can at times annoy or confuse the other; and as in Margie and Kevin's case, this leads to misinterpretations of the other's intentions.

Both introversion and extroversion concern where people get their energy, and that's the key to understanding the difference. Extroverts are oriented to the outer world of people and things. As a result, they thrive on interaction, generally enjoy being with lots of other people, and tend to be animated and expressive.

Introverts tend to be oriented to the inner world of ideas and thoughts. As a result, they generally thrive on quiet time, prefer interacting one-on-one and in small groups, and tend to be reserved and reflective.

Notice that I'm deliberately using terms like "tend to," "usually," and "generally." It would be seriously misleading to claim that all introverts and extroverts always behave a certain way in a given situation.

Extroverts also tend to think aloud, hearing their thoughts for the first time when they express them to others. It's understandable, therefore, that they sometimes appear to be changing their minds as they speak, because that's exactly what's happening—they're working through their ideas. Introverts tend to process thoughts internally. It's often only after they've done internally what extroverts do externally that they speak their thoughts—if even then. Though it may take only moments for introverts to organize their thoughts, the conversation may have moved on by then, so they don't chime in.

An especially important difference is that extroverts tend to gain energy from interacting with others. As a result, they may seek opportunities to talk with others, and they are more likely than introverts to look forward to an after-work outing after a people-intensive day. By contrast, introverts tend to lose energy from interacting with others. They tend to find constant interaction fatiguing, even when they like the people they're with and the things they're talking about.

Though it may at times seem otherwise, the behaviors associated with introversion and extroversion are neither motivated nor premeditated—and aren't meant to drive others crazy. Brain research demonstrates that introverts and extroverts differ in the quantity and pathways of blood flow to the brain and in sensitivity to certain neurotransmitters. For example, a research study led by Debra Johnson and reported in The American Journal of Psychiatry (February 1999) found that extroverts require a large amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine; the more active the extrovert is, the more dopamine is increased. By contrast, introverts are highly sensitive to dopamine; getting too much of it feels like an overload.
The research is much more complex than any brief description can convey. But once you consider the differences in how the brain functions, the behavioral differences between introverts and extroverts are exactly what you'd predict. Fortunately, both approaches are just fine; what's important is that coworkers respect each other and draw from everyone's strengths to create a better outcome for all concerned.

Remember, though, that it's not always obvious from someone's behavior whether that person is an introvert or an extrovert. Some introverts are talkative; some extroverts are reserved. Just as there are differences in behavior between extroverts and introverts, there are differences between any two introverts and any two extroverts. We are multi-dimensional beings, and our introversion or extroversion is just one small aspect of who we are.

If the introvert/extrovert dynamic has posed challenges for your team, I suggest you get together and discuss these differences. Help each other understand what your introversion or extroversion is like for you. Discuss the strengths you bring to the team by virtue of your introversion or extroversion. Ask each other questions to deepen your understanding. Describe what you need from each other in order to do your best work. I guarantee you'll learn some things in the process. I've seen teams make striking improvements in the way they work together through discussions of this kind.

In a future StickyMinds.com article, I'll elaborate on the positive and negative perceptions introverts and extroverts have of each other, and I'll offer additional ideas on how they can work together effectively.

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