LEADING AS AN INTROVERT – PART 1

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This may surprise you to know, but I am actually an introvert at heart. There can be a negative connotation that goes along with the word introvert. We imagine a recluse who is socially awkward and spends all their time at home playing Warcraft.

But reality is quite different. An introvert can be very social, has a lively presence around their small circle of friends and can be a gifted public speaker. The difference being, the introvert often needs more time to recover after such events than an extrovert does. Spending all Saturday night at a party may require a day of solitude.

Introversion and extroversion is not a black or white thing, instead it falls on a spectrum. But the fundamental difference between an introvert and an extrovert is that an extrovert will feel more alive after being in a social situation, while someone who is more introverted will feel worn out, even if they had an amazingly fun time and wouldn’t change it for anything.

Other traits of introversion include preferring to think through your words before saying them out loud (my boyfriend often finishes my sentences because I pause for too long to think through what I am saying); often being considered a tad shy or aloof (when deep down you know you are a friendly person) and spending a lot of time in one’s head reflecting (I wonder if the cow in my burger had a happy life…). In addition, introverts can feel overwhelmed by too much stimulation and have an aversion to multi-tasking, preferring to just focus on the job at hand.

The difficult thing about climbing the career ladder in most offices is that traits of extroversion are often praised over traits of introversion. The quick-witted guy who can network his tits off or the girl who can step into a meeting, ill-prepared, and still seem to wow the group – these traits tend to stand out to a manager. Sadly, this can chip away at the confidence of an introvert. They have thoughts like “why can’t I be more like them” or “I will be passed over for that promotion because I struggle to verbalise my opinions, so what’s the point in trying”. This dent in their confidence then compounds an introvert’s feelings of being different and stops them from taking steps to stretch out of their comfort zone.

Introversion and extroversion can be a result of brain physiology, which can add fuel to the confidence fire. Imagine how hopeless an introvert feels when they are constantly thinking “I shouldn’t be this way”, however, it is how their brains are wired so they can’t help it! Such things can affect self-esteem.

When I was studying toddlers, I learned that different children have different levels of sensory sensitivity and that this can be due to differences in how their brain takes on stimuli (information) from the world around them – the same is true for adults.

Sensory sensitivity is viewed in terms of thresholds. Let’s take two people, one who has greater sensitivity to noise and one who is less sensitive to noise. Now pretend that when a group of sounds enter their ears from the environment, these sounds move down a large tunnel and at the end of the tunnel, there is a gate separating the tunnel from the brain. The less sensitive person has a gate that is open just a little, to let some of the sounds through, but not all. The sensitive person has a gate that is much more open, allowing lots of the sounds to enter.

When a stimulus reaches the appropriate brain centre, it activates the nerve cells to fire. So as you can imagine, the non-sensitive person has much less activation going on in their brain, however, the sensitive person has a whole flurry of activity going on, making them overwhelmed, or at least, more easily tired out. All this brain activity requires energy, which must be fuelled by a compound called glycogen in the brain.

You may now understand why the less sensitive person can work in a crowded noisy office without annoyance, but for the sensitive person, the modern, open-plan workplace can feel like a form of slow torture.

In addition, this sensitivity can be present in terms of emotions (more easily hurt), awareness of other people (more sensitive to the moods of those around you) and touch (certain fabrics feel unbearably uncomfortable, or certain touch feels too rough). Some people are even sensitive to the space around them – preferring not be touched or feeling more violated by that person at the party who doesn’t understand the term ‘personal space’.

When I was studying my PhD, this was the first time I truly came to terms with the fact that I was indeed introverted with a sensitive nervous system. I also realised that I had rejected these parts of myself, thinking they must be changed at all costs and this had got me into all sorts of unfortunate situations. I took on jobs that I thought were right for me but weren’t; I lived in a flats where I pressured myself to socialise with my flatmates all the time, even when my poor tired brain just needed to be alone in a dark room with a TV series. I often suffered from mild burnouts where I would feel psychologically and physically worn out. I was pushing myself to fit into an extroverted world – to be out all the time and to never turn down an opportunity. But I wasn’t built this way.

Did it hold me back, no. But did I put myself under unnecessary stress, definitely.

With all this said, it can sound a little tough for the introvert or the sensitive person. You feel that you must accept a life in which the world itself overwhelms you and reside yourself to fewer promotions, less money, fewer friends, less opportunities, less experiences and generally just being tired all the time.

But, there is a massive silver lining to this little cloud. Some of the most incredible minds of all time were introverts. It takes a certain level of introspection to be able to come up with amazing, innovative ideas. For this reason, introverts are often idea farms! They are very observant and able to assess a situation and see how it can be improved. Therefore, they are great strategisers and analytical thinkers who can foresee how even minor changes could improve a situation. It has been proposed that in the future, hard skills will be prioritised less in a job-description, with resilience to change being top of the list. Innovative companies know that change is the only constant for success and to support growth they must hire staff who are comfortable with change and constantly coming up with fresh ways to improve.

Introverts are usually very creative – incredible artists and writers are often people who spend considerable time in their heads. Many great movie-makers will see the scene play out in their mind before they shoot it. A talented interior designer will be sensitive to lighting, colours and even energies of a room.

Einstein was an introvert, Eleanor Roosevelt was an introvert, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, J.K Rowling, Warren Buffet, Audrey Hepburn…even Gandhi was introverted! All of these introverted leaders have been incredibly successful in their very different areas of interest.

So if you feel a little hard done by for being introverted, ask yourself – would you prefer to be the life and soul of the party? Or would you prefer to have the sort of brain with the capacity to change the world?

In the following post I will detail all the ways, at work and in my personal life, that I have learned to reduce the stimulation in my brain and to rest deeply so that I can have good ideas to write for you guys. Most importantly, I will detail how I learned to take really good care of myself in the face of an increasingly busy world. I will also talk about ways that I have forced myself out of my comfort zone to become someone who can speak up with ideas at a meeting with ease and give presentations. If you would like to do some reading before then, I loved a book by Susan Cain called Quiet Power: Growing up as an introvert in a world that won’t stop talking. This book truly helped me to understand myself and see that my desire to become a leader does not require me to fundamentally change who I am.

Next post: How to Lead as an Introvert – Part 2.

Much Love XX

Photo: My Own

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Hi, I’m Katie. I am a kiwi neuroscientist with a love for consuming and creating content. This site is where I share my personal thoughts and the thoughts of incredible minds from around the world. PhD in Neuroscience, University of Otago.

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