Who Speaks for the Introvert?
Introverts work in environments constructed by extroverts, leading to work environments structurally biased against introverts (especially in creative professional spaces such as software engineering). Pushing back against this systemic bias can lead to enhancing introverts’ productivity. This is what is known as win-win.
Even saying introverted is “this close” to saying shy which is “this close” to saying weak. These associations are wrong (introverted and shy and weak are three separate things, of course), but simply starting a conversation (or essay, article, or blog post) about introverts, in other words, is starting out with a playing field tilted against introverts, just by the nature of the English language. I hope that acknowledging this bias in vocabulary will help ameliorate it.
I don’t know whether to blame human nature or reality, but the universe contains certain cruelties. One of these cruelties is the way human biases tilt our relationships in a way that expands the gaps between introverts and extroverts.
Organizational Structure in the Twenty-First Century
Who tends to zero in on technical career tracks? Introverts. Who tends to ambitiously climb the corporate ladder? Extroverts.
Neither of these phenomena are bad; indeed, they’re both good: the best people to handle technical problems are people comfortable in their own skin digging seven levels deep into such problems, and the best people to manage people are people people.
But the end result is that the people deciding how other people work are biased towards the extroverted end of the spectrum.
This is really the crux of this essay. If everything else gets ignored, fine, as long as we acknowledge this: introverts are working in environments constructed by extroverts.
If you don’t think this is a problem, that is evidence that you are part of the problem.
Whose Complaints Are Vocalized?
For some environments (a meeting-heavy open-space social vibrant environment, say), you won’t hear any complaints.
The extroverts won’t complain because they’re working well within their comfort zone.
The introverts won’t complain because introverts tend to suck it up and not be vocal complainers.
The absence of complaints, in other words, is not evidence that everything is cool.
I have found that Peopleware (DeMarco & Lister) perfectly articulates my opinions about a lot of things; most relevant to this essay is their opinion about meetings. “The ultimate management sin is wasting people’s time,” say DeMarco & Lister.
For meetings like daily stand-ups in Agile methodologies where everyone is expected to actively contribute, not only are Peopleware’s objections in play, but the introvert/extrovert schism can hamper effectiveness. I have not seen anyone acknowledge the drawback that for introverts, such meetings are emotionally draining.
Obviously human interactions must take place. Building a strong team requires bonds between humans; and productively working requires communication.
The most common advice when mentioning an introvert/extrovert dichotomy is directed towards introverts about how to be effective in an extrovert-friendly environment. This is another example of a cruel universe being biased against introverts.
Solving the problems needn’t be forcing an introverted square peg into an extroverted round hole. There are solutions that are more introvert-friendly that still fit well in an extrovert-friendly environment. Here are two.
Lower the barriers. A social gathering is never going to be rejuvenating for an introvert, but it can be less wearying with some chemical assistance.
I grew up in a teetotalling environment, so this isn’t a natural thing to say (and let me add: sorry, Mom & Dad), but years of introvert observation suggest that alcohol is a good way to reduce the impedance mismatch between introverts and extroverts for a short while.
Status “meetings” don’t have to be meetings. A daily “developer log” on a wiki, or a daily blog post, is a perfect workaround to let introverts participate fairly and non-uncomfortably. I’ve been contributing to a developer log (“devlog”) like this for years, very successfully.
(And this isn’t a case where comfort for introverts costs comfort for extroverts. Writing instead of talking can be done effectively by anyone in a creative-professional environment, whether they’re introverted, extroverted, or anywhere in between.)
And what’s more, an environment where daily status, plans, updates, and issues are created in a social-networking way not only provides the same information as a daily stand-up meeting, but provides it in a way that’s faster, less interruptive, and — maybe the most surprising advantage — intrinsically archivable.
Review the Introverts Dilemma
With just a couple of structural tweaks, and looking at the dilemma from a non-extroverted perspective, it’s not a foregone conclusion that introverts must work outside their comfort zone: solutions exist that allow introverts and extroverts to excel in the same well-crafted environment.