“I like people, but I like them in short burst. I don’t like people for extended periods of time. I’m alright with them for a little while, but once you get up to a minute, a minute and half, I need to get the f**k out of there.” – George Carlin
I sometimes have the same feeling, even if it takes a bit longer than a minute. I start to scratch my toe in the sand (as the beach is a common meeting place when you live in Sydney) with an absent look on my face until my wife looks at me and says “you want to leave, don’t you?”.
By far the largest struggle in my career has been dealing with introversion, with a close second the fact that I generally don’t come across as an introvert. Sure, I am not a great cocktail conversationalist, but I am not socially awkward, I stand up straight, I can speak in front of a group and I don’t look at my shoes when I talk to other people (even if I am an accountant). I sometimes come out as en E in the Myers-Briggs test (because I cheat on some of the questions usually) and people that know me only half way well would probably not put me in the introverted box. My close friends do know my dark secret.
What do you mean by struggle?
Struggle!! Feeling slow, thinking you have to change most things about your personality, thinking everyone else has their S**t together….STRUGGLE!
I have never been directly held back by someone else (as far as I know), but the number of times I have been thinking “I should probably be more like…” are more than I can remember. Looking at other people at work (mainly at work), that I think are more outspoken, more aggressive, take up more space etc, I have thought THAT is how I need to behave. But man, it is hard to be outspoken in large groups when you really want to think through what you say before you say it. I feel like a GPS figuring out a route and once I have, the driver makes an unexpected left turn and I have to re-compute the whole trip again, then the same extroverted bastard makes a U-turn, 4 laps in a round about and pulls into a drive-in for coffee. And what was it I wanted to say again? Common feedback on the back of this is “you need to speak more”.
I commonly feel slow because I don’t contribute amazingly well on the fly with little or no preparation. I first noticed this at university when some bright spark had the idea that, to write up the English group task, we all sit in front of one computer and write the thing together. I couldn’t come up with one single sentence but thought a lot about how incredibly ineffective we were. Four people working as one, literally. Four people’s productivity being stifled to one, or less than one given that I was probably counter productive. Feedback on the back of this “he seems to sometimes lack engagement”.
A more social complication of this is that people sometimes think I want to leave because I don’t like them. Well, that happens too, but most of the time that is not the case. I love talking to people. Actually, let me correct that, I love listening to people. I am actually so intensely interested in listening to people that I can remember most things that people have ever told me, and I mean on a scary level of detail (to the point that I pretend not to remember things to not come across as too weird). It is however hard to listen intensely to five people at the same time and when I try, it makes me really tired. There it is. Tired! It makes me tired, and then I want to leave.
Lead from the second row
When I was at Deloitte I had a clear thinking Partner that said “a consultants role is to lead from the second row”. A consultant rarely has any power to actually decide anything, but needs to work in the background to get the right people pointing in the right direction. Leaders work the same way sometimes. Show the right behaviors, make the right decisions. Personalize the culture you want (“culture eats strategy for breakfast” as good old Peter said). Some of that may be related to standing in front of people and command them to do things, but most of it does not.
This is not to scale and is not based on a real survey or facts. It is simply to visualize what I mean. The more people that are listening or part-taking, the more people will put on the game face, avoid touchy topics, and start talking about things less and less interesting…until it hits rock bottom when someone posts a picture of their lunch.
Don’t get me wrong, there is no wrong
I am not saying that it is better to be introverted than extroverted. There are some pretty clear drawbacks to my inclination of being more laid back and introverted than “in your face” talkative. I sometimes do dodge an initial conflict, just to come back with a vengeance when I really have had enough. And I mean enough! I mean there is nothing you can do to make me go on. I mean head to head “I am a decent thai-boxer, improving grappler and I will throw you out the window before this goes on“-type stubborn. In retrospect it seems this may not always be the most productive attitude. Who would have known?
In fact it seems research shows that is is highly dependent on the situation, like everything else in life. Even things that sound very good, are not always good. Is it good to be kind? Well, generally speaking, yes, but if you are too kind to your children they don’t learn anything about conflict or adversity and will have to run off to a safe space when someone disagrees with them. You need to be more pushy at work. It is good to push. Maybe it is at times, or maybe you are just annoying the team, wasting their time perfecting things that don’t need perfecting and you will eventually make them leave in search of the greener grass.
Hence, I’m not saying I’m right and others are wrong. Be your gregarious, outspoken self and draw on the benefits that accompany that type of behavior, and find co-workers or direct reports that can take care of the bits that are not your strength. I will stay my quite self and always make sure to have an outspoken project manager on my crew, and we’ll see each other in the middle.