Bringing organizations into the 21st century, step one

Last week I wrote a post about how I’ve been surprised and a bit disappointed over how organizational culture largely seems to be at a standstill even though technology and the economy are continuously evolving in a frenzy of development and reinvention. In short, while everything else changes, we continue to expect and look for the same traits and behaviors in our employees.

That same evening after I posted on my blog, my husband mentioned to me how much he like my post, but that just when he was getting excited about the new ideas for how to embrace the future and the diversity among his team members that he thought I was going to write about, I just stopped. I said something needs to change, but I never said what. And I guess I have to admit, that could potentially be frustrating. Well, I’ve been thinking about this, and about what I can offer in ways of new ideas.

I’ve been reading a book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Reading this book, and watching her TED talk which I did before buying the book, has really been an eye-opener for me. About a year ago I saw one of those lists that like to circulate on social media. This one was something along the lines of ‘25 signs that you’re an introvert’, and reading that list was a defining moment for me. I recognized pretty much every single sign on that list. I have always assumed that I am an extrovert, and people have always told me that I am so extroverted. And the reason is I’m talkative and social. In manageable doses that is. But people of course never see the times when I really need time out to recuperate after being social and talkative, because obviously that’s when I go off to be by myself. And this apparently is typical of introverts. The thing is, being an introvert is often mistakenly defined as shy and asocial; words which have quite negative connotations. But that is not what introvert means. According to Cain, introverts and extroverts simply “differ in the levels of outside stimulation that they need to function well.” And they work differently. “Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration.” While introverts may have great social skills, after a while they often need to be on their own to recuperate. They may also prefer deep discussions to small talk. And the point is, not all introverts are the same, you can of course be introverted to different degrees.

For me it was a relief to realize that all these traits in me that have felt a bit weird and worrisome are completely normal. In organizational or team settings I’ve often felt that I’m not really part of the group. Like I’m a bit of an outsider. Even in social settings, especially when I was younger, where, despite loving my friends to pieces, I just didn’t want to spend every waking moment with them in large groups like they seemed to want to. It kind of made me wonder if I was a bad team member or friend. So you can imagine, reading that other people are the same was pretty great.

According to Cain, between 30-50% of people in the US are introverted. And the US, if you don’t mind me saying, is a pretty extroverted society, so the number may possibly even be even higher in other parts of the world. But organizational culture globally very much follows the US norm. Cain so eloquently explains how, from a culture of character, ours has evolved into a culture of personality where we are “urged to develop an extroverted personality for frankly selfish reasons.”

The other day when I was interviewing another man who has opted out, everything seemed to suddenly fall into place. He told me that he always thought he was an extrovert but has come to the conclusion that it turns out he is an introvert. Wow. Or rather, the reason I thought ‘wow’ was that the man I interviewed before him also told me he was an introvert and that he never really felt at home in his career. And come to think of it, the man before that was an introvert too. And I started thinking back to the women I interviewed several years ago, and I’m going to have to be in touch with them again to ask, but I have a feeling many of them are introverts as well. Could there be a connection between being an introvert and opting out?

Think about it. Organizational cultures aren’t developed for introverts. We are expected to be extroverts, to be team players, to be outspoken, and to be great sales people (even if we aren’t in sales). Our working spaces are increasingly becoming open spaces where if you’re an introvert you may find it incredibly tiring and uncomfortable to never be able to escape other people’s gazes (whether or not they are actually looking at you) which makes you feel like you can never be yourself. There is no room for quiet and solitude. Not so much what you say but how you say things is what’s valued and it is often the loudest person who is heard and receives recognition. And no, the loudest idea is not necessarily the best idea at all; it is just the one we tend to go with because it is voiced with such conviction.

So what does this mean in practical terms? One of my main points in last week’s post was that we need to really embrace diversity in organizations to match the increasing diversity we see on global markets. And I don’t just mean focusing on having a culturally diverse work force, for example. I mean really embracing that there are different ways of doing things, of thinking, and of being that may all be equally good, and, perhaps more importantly, that bring out the best in people in different ways. How about actually walking the talk regarding the importance of different roles and personality types in teams and organizations? But also embracing and creating different environments and solutions for work for people with different wants and needs. Maybe not everyone should be in an open space. Maybe meeting routines need to be different so that not only the loud people are heard. Maybe we need to accept that not everyone will want to be nor should even have to be a so-called team player. Some people work better in groups, some people work better alone, some in an office and some at home. Some people work better in the morning, some better at night. Some like to work several hours in a stretch. Some just can’t, but it doesn’t mean they work less. And it should all be ok and we need to develop routines to support this.

Well, this is getting long so I’ll stop here for now. But this is the first in a series of thoughts and ideas of how we can really change the way we think in organizations. To be continued.

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