Designing for introversion – MBA Learnings

During my time as a consultant, I had a couple of memorable experiences working with extraverted managers. My favorite collection of experiences were with a very extraverted client manager who also became a very close friend. We had a running joke – every Friday, we would check in with each other on our plans for the weekend and he would unfailingly ask about potentially going out and doing something social on Friday night/during the weekend. I would, almost without exception, pass on the idea. We both knew that was going to be the outcome of the discussion. We still did it and laughed about it. We had reached a point of comfort where I didn’t need to explain my introversion to him. At the end of a week full of meetings, I didn’t really want to go out and be social. I needed time by myself.

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Similarly, I always preferred finding myself a quiet corner of the client’s office to do work versus sitting around a meeting room table (as was generally the norm within the team). The introverted managers understood this. The extraverted managers took some time but, for the most part, were happy to let me do as I pleased once we’d established rapport.

A lot of modern day office work or work that requires “connection” requires a certain degree of extraversion (the research world, on the other hand, is predominantly introverted). After all, you are working with people. Over time, however, it has led to a huge bias for extraverts and, I think, the early rise of extraverts into senior positions has also led to systems that work best for extraverts. Fully open plan offices are a great example of this sort of evolution. Fantastic idea for extraverts who don’t mind having people who bump into them. Horrible idea for introverts who find every such interaction draining. Now, there are lots of benefits of this sort of layout – more team bonding, creativity, ideas, etc. It is just that there has to be middle ground. And, it is only over time that offices have learnt to create quiet spaces for the introverts to plug in and focus.

In her book, “Quiet – The power of introverts in a world that just can’t stop talking,” Susan Cain spoke described how MBA programs around the world are designed by extraverts, for extraverts. Examples of this are “networking nights,” parties and bar nights, large swathes of time spent on group projects. etc.

So, coming in to graduate school, I was curious about how it would all work out for me. A year in, I’ve learnt a few interesting lessons –

1. Susan Cain is right – there are a lot of systems in the professional/connection world that are designed for extraverts. I have found her take on the professional world and graduate school to be largely true. I think extraversion is thought to be the norm and I’ve regularly found people overwhelmed and uncomfortable at the thought of another networking night or another bar night they “have to” go to.

2. While some of these systems will stay the way they are, many of them can be changed. As a simple example, I found both the admit weekend and the orientation week designed for extraverts. It turned out that I had the opportunity to run the orientation week for the next class and our team made a conscious effort to cater to the introverts, too. I’m not saying we got this right but it is a step forward. The truth remains that the population is typically split 50-50 between extraverts and introverts. Occasionally, I get the feeling it skews even higher to introverts. So, there are plenty of folk who crave quiet time – it just requires a bit of initiative to design for introversion.

3. Design for introversion. There’s many little things that have helped me design this experience around my introversion. A few examples –

Career – I focused my outreach to folks I really wanted to build relationships with. I realized early that “networking” – to check the box – didn’t work for me. So, I began working through close networks to figure out if I could meet people who I’d be interested in working with.

Academics – At school, I do my best to take a crack at assignments before showing up for a group meeting. I realized quickly that I get very little value out of a group meeting if I haven’t done the work myself. I don’t do group discussion well if I haven’t done the work and don’t have a point of view. I’ve found group work to be hugely benefit IF most of the group has done the work. In these cases, we, almost always, end up at a better place.

– Social – No bar nights, more small group meals and catch ups. This has been a very useful principle since my first month here. Bar nights are low quality social interactions to me. You can barely hear each other and almost never have a real conversation. So, those were thrown out almost as soon as I tried one. I’ve found plenty of opportunity to replace them with small group meetings, “learning groups” and 30′ walking catch ups. I’ve found a lot of enthusiasm for these and these have been great to do. They’ve all taken an initial bit of initiative to set up but, over time, have taken a life of their own.

Social – making friends through teams. I form close relationships when I work with people. So, I’ve sought out extra-curricular experiences that have enabled these. My closest relationships from school have come from extra-curricular teams I’ve worked in or led. The best benefit of this is that these groups have turned out to be incredibly diverse. And, even in environments where you have incredible diversity, I’ve learnt that forming cross-cultural relationships can be very hard and take extra effort. But, my oh my, they’re completely worth it.

Introverts are stereotyped to be quiet and lacking social skills. I do okay on the social skills front and I’m definitely not quiet. But, I do crave quiet and need time by myself to recharge, focus and get things done. While you do become better at managing social energy over time, these propensities still remain. What has helped me greatly is to be aware of these propensities and design for them. And, it is always good to know that, no matter which environment you are in, it is likely you will find several introverts who will happily join your for quiet conversation over a loud party. A simple current example – we are all getting set for a huge annual school-wide trip. It is sure to be a lot of fun. However, a big part of the trip is designed by extraverts with huge social get togethers. As you can imagine, the first step of my planning process was picking and choosing the social nights I wanted to attend and replacing them with either complete quiet nights or a nice dinner/a board game night. There’s plenty of folk who’ll want to do this. And, most importantly, even if they didn’t, I certainly do.

So, that’s where I’ll end – as I’ve discovered through my consulting experiences and at graduate school, in most cases, you can choose how you want to engage and design experiences that work for you. It just requires you to understand what you want and then figure out ways to make that happen.

As with most good things in life, it is what you make of it.