This story was written by Keith Dawson for UBM DeusM’s community Web site Business Agility, sponsored by IBM. It is archived here for informational purposes only because the Business Agility site is no more. This material is Copyright 2012 by UBM DeusM.

Social Business and the Introvert

Don't risk the good contributions of a third of your workforce in the rush to be more social.

As businesses becomes more social, they run the risk of turning off their less extroverted workers. Here are some tips for keeping everyone engaged.

IT has long been a field friendly to the introverted worker. Along with the rest of the corporate world, IT departments are feeling the pressure to move towards a more social way of doing business -- more collaborative and engaged with other groups internally, and perhaps even with customers. IT may have a lead role in the movement towards social enterprise, perhaps taking responsibility for tool selection, training, and integration. How does the company assure that in the rush to social the introverts won't be left behind?

First some definitions. The terms "introvert" and "extrovert" were introduced by Carl Jung in the 1920s. Introversion is simply the preference for a lower-stimulus environment. Introverts are not energized by interacting with others in large groups; in fact such interaction tends to drain them. Introverts recharge their batteries in quiet and solitude. Introversion is not shyness (that's a fear of negative social judgement), or social awkwardness, or fear of public speaking, or a tendency to be antisocial. All of those things occur in extroverts as well. About one-third of the US population is introverted by this definition.

The subject of introversion in society is currently in the public eye largely because of two recent books. Lisa Petrilli's The Introvert's Guide to Success in Business and Leadership has sales rank 2,734 in Amazon's Kindle store. And the more mainstream Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, currently ranks at number 14 on Amazon's books list. NPR just ran an interview with Cain, which includes a 20-question quiz to help you locate yourself on the introvert-extrovert axis. (I came out at 85% towards the introvert side.)

According to Cain, to an increasing degree we as a society have fallen out of balance -- we have undervalued introverts since the time of the agrarian / industrial shift, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The tendency is exacerbated in the workplace by open-plan offices and now by the emphasis on social collaboration. Not all good things come out of groups working together. Innovation also benefits from solitude -- from being able to go off and put your head down and focus.

Introverts are rarely groomed for leadership positions, even though research shows that executives who are introverts can often produce better outcomes. Introverts have strengths of their own that extroverts can't muster, and the most successful such executives -- Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are examples -- play to these strengths.

Redressing the balance
So how does a company move in the direction of being more social without losing the goodwill, and the best contributions, of a third of its staff? At our sister community The Brainyard, Debra Donston-Miller has a few suggestions.

Have you seen negative impacts from a devaluing of introverted employees in the changing workplace? Please tell us about it in the comments.