Have you ever stopped to think about why being an introvert in the modern workplace is so difficult? Obviously, it’s clear that the office now has a specific look, feel, and most importantly, agenda. Offices now trend closer to university student centers with laid-back seating and ample whiteboards ready to jot down the ideas of the company think tank. This movement impacts not only how you engage with others at work but also your value to your company — and even your ability to be promoted.
According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet, in her interview with Lillian Cunningham:
“We live with this value system that I call the new groupthink, which holds that creativity and productivity come from a very gregarious place.”
In other words, the workplace is now set up to make decisions, brainstorm, and problem solve all within a group setting — and it’s just getting worse. All of these extroverted characteristics have seeped deep into our jobs and created some serious pitfalls for the average introvert.
Here are five of them. No wonder going into the office can be so tough for introverts. Can you relate?
5 Pitfalls of the ‘Extroverted’ Workplace
1. The open concept office
Walls in companies are coming down. These include great strides in the equality of gender, race, and age. On the other hand, physical walls also seem to be coming down, as the open concept office is everywhere.
From open floor plans to officeless spaces, if a company wants to appear more functional, the first thing to go are the cubicles, followed by anything else, all in an attempt to create a more “communal” atmosphere. Most of the time, it can be chalked up to a company trying to save a buck on air conditioning costs.
What these businesses don’t understand is that a significant portion of their employees need their own space. Introverts will never be as productive when we are constantly thrust into a group setting. We need quiet downtime to recharge. We need a space that we can control to some extent. Most importantly, to do our best work, we need to be able to escape from other people!
And recent research shows that they don’t actually make people more collaborative. In fact, one study supports what we already know: The noise of open offices simply causes people to put on headphones and tune out. The lack of privacy motivates people to work from home whenever they can. And the sense of being constantly watched makes employees frequently choose email over an in-person chat.
Nevertheless, the open office isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future, and that spells bad news, especially for introverts.
2. An overreliance on collaboration
“They can take our lives, but they cannot take our freedom.” This line may have been true for Mel Gibson in Braveheart, but at work, the notion of independence is disappearing. The concept of “team” has really changed over the years. Where it used to be that individuals were responsible for a task, we now have a cooperative group assigned to meet together unceasingly and solve problems.
In theory, this idea is not bad. Why not share the workload and get multiple perspectives? But in reality, it withholds the very thing that people need to be able to solve problems, and that is thought. Something called “groupthink” takes over, an idea Cain explores in Quiet. Groupthink is the process of making decisions as a group in a way that discourages independent thinking and creativity. Well-intentioned people end up making irrational or illogical choices, spurred on by the urge to conform (for example: the escalation of the Vietnam War).
As introverts, independent thinking is what we do best. Though undervalued, autonomy can not only prevent groupthink, but it can also make our time in groups more efficient when we do come together. Too much time in groups diminishes our ability to organize our thoughts, which is necessary before introverts can coherently share them. We need the freedom to be self-reliant before being group-minded if we’re going to do our jobs well.
3. Constant assurance and reassurance culture
From your micromanaging boss to the average office mate, there’s a constant need for people to be involved not just in your work, but also with you. This daily download of fake smiles, oversharing, and the need to reassure your coworkers can be overwhelming at the best of times. I feel like I am constantly on display and need to prove my value to the team and company. Just doing my job isn’t enough.
Bosses want to check in on you, with you, about you, for you. In return, they want you to also be ready to check in — when all you want is some space to actually get stuff done. Other cultures, such as the Swiss, do not have these tendencies. Choosing to operate companies in a more independent environment, they expect autonomous effort from their employees — and tend to generally avoid small talk as a culture. Amazingly, they operate in a more secure way and understand that you should be able to do the job you were hired for without constant hand-holding.
4. The constant expectation to be social
Let’s face it, the workplace has become one big social space. Everywhere you go, from the lunchroom to the bathroom to the elevator, you’re expected to chat. There’s nowhere you can go to get a few minutes to yourself.
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This is why we introverts bring large water bottles or coffee thermoses from home to avoid trips to the break room. This is why we introverts eat lunch in our cars. When I worked in an office, I was lucky enough to have my own space with a door I could close. At my low points, I would turn off my lights, lock my door, and eat my lunch cold — no way was I going to the break room to use the microwave! — just to have a breather from people. It didn’t mean that I didn’t care for the people I worked with; I was lucky enough to have relationships that I treasured. I just needed a sensory break from the barrage of communication.
5. Being judged for being quiet
Being an introvert comes with the price tag of people with big personalities wanting to put their own spin on who you are. They have a need to put some kind of label on you to help them process why you don’t act like them. This happens everywhere, from schools to families, but perhaps this practice is most rampant at work.
Your coworkers might judge you because of your introversion. So they label. You are the good listener, the odd one out, the quiet one, or the one who doesn’t come to office parties. This can affect your role in the workplace and can cause you to be overlooked for promotions. This may have little to do with your performance on the job.
Our society has come to equate extroversion with leadership in the workplace. What introverts have to offer is different, and is sometimes harder to see, but is equally as valuable.
Yes, being introvert in the workplace has its pitfalls. It’s messy, and the way trends are going, it’s not likely to get better for us soon. So what are our options? There are jobs out there that are better for introverts; see a list here. Or, you might consider freelancing or self-employment; here’s why those are great options for introverts. Introvert, you don’t have to settle for a workplace that is not meeting your needs.