Thursday, June 27, 2013

Introversion is Not a Pathological Condition

According to the book "Quiet : The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking", somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of the population are introverts. According to other sources, too many to list, the percentages in technology fields is much higher. In fact, it is so commonly accepted as fact, that I bet most of you read that and went "Uh-huh" or had thoughts to that effect.

On the other hand, as discussed in "Quiet" the heads of many (most?) American corporations are extroverts. This is not necessarily a good thing, which may come as a surprise to many people (in the States). America is one of the most culturally extroverted countries in the world and this leads to a preferencing of extroversion over introversion, even within technology companies - if you want to rise to the top that is. You need to learn to be the loudest or most persistent voice in the room (and it helps in this regard if you are a White male). Dominating a conversation, and sounding super confident, doesn't say anything about the validity of your ideas, but we often act as if it does.

"Quiet" does a credible job of refuting the contention that it takes a super extrovert to be a successful leader. Even in corporate America. In addition to referencing a bunch of research, the author provides several compelling case studies of where over the top extroversion led to chronic poor decision making and the ultimate demise of a company. She also makes a strong case against the argument that it is "natural" that extroverts should and will run the show. In our cultural cocoon we may think so, but biology, history, anthropology, evolution say otherwise.

Bottom line: We need balance and we need to pay equal attention to everyone; this may mean going outside our comfort zones.

But do we ever make it hard on our introvert colleagues sometimes. Instead of valuing the strengths of introversion, we push people to change. How many friends or colleagues in technical careers have you met who are great contributors, incredibly productive, but who are being pressured to move into a management track, the thought of which makes them miserable? In part it makes them miserable because of the implicit understanding that they will need to change their personality in order to "succeed".

How many people with excellent experience and skills for a needed activity are overlooked because they "think too much" or "are too sensitive"? I mean really, what a way to put somebody down and keep them down - make them feel defective.

One of the many things I like about "Quiet" is that it makes it quite clear that introversion is not something that needs to be overcome or "addressed". Sure, there are pathological introverts, but no more so than there are pathological extroverts - we just don't see extroversion as pathological nearly as much (practically ever?) as we do introversion.

While reading, I had a new insight into the challenge of increasing support for computing education in the schools - something I spend a lot of my professional time thinking about these days.

How much of the societal disregard for the importance of computing studies (K-12 through post-secondary) is related to the societal dismissal of introverts as less interesting, less worthwhile, less likely to succeed, less likely to contribute, less valuable people? 

In my ideal world, everyone would be heard and equally valued. Women in computing talk about this frequently as a gender issue, and I agree that there is a gender issue here. There are many layers here; I want to hear what other women in computing have to say about this; I'm going to get my opportunity, because the book club discussion of "Quiet" by Global Tech Women is tomorrow. Are you attending? Everyone is welcome and everyone will be listened to and respected. Of that I am sure.

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