When we talk about people in terms of personality types, the big two categories are introvert and extrovert. However, according to more than a few studies, our common belief that everyone can be sorted into one of these two boxes is a flawed one. In reality, there are very few "pure extroverts" or "pure introverts."
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Erin Wortham, people engagement manager at people development firm Insights, knows this.
"We all have different personalities and unique ingredients," Wortham explains. "Some extroverts may love being in front of a crowd, but if they did it all day, they'd still feel drained. Just because we have a preference for one, that doesn't mean we don't have some qualities of the other."
But Wortham also realizes that talking about people as introverts or extroverts has its benefits. These categories are useful shorthands; they can serve as catch-all terms for some of the biggest differences between people in terms of their behaviors and communication styles.
Even if pure introverts and extroverts are few and far between, the fact remains that we don't all share the same preferences. This can cause major tension at work, especially when colleagues don't have the same communication preferences. As a result, we may interpret our colleagues' actions through our own frames of reference instead of theirs, resulting in misunderstandings, workplace conflicts, missed deadlines, and more.
"We often see things as we are, not as they are," Wortham says. "You're strong and doing what works for you and bringing your strengths forward, but it's sometimes difficult to recognize or create spaces for the strengths of others."
In other words, extroverts may perceive introvert behaviors and communications in extrovert terms and find them baffling, and vice versa.
It's not hard to see how this leads to problems: While you're plugging away on a team project, you're probably following your own preferences in terms of work style and communication. In doing so, you may be glossing over the preferences of some of your teammates. Without even realizing it, you're making it difficult for your teammates to communicate or leverage their own strengths. As a result, you may feel like your colleagues aren't pulling their weight – and maybe they aren't because they are struggling to succeed in the space that's been created. Now, the team is tense and stressed and the quality of the work is slipping.
There is a way to overcome this challenge, and Wortham sums it up in two words: "Be curious."
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The Power of Curiosity
People need to be aware of the fact that they and their teammates won't share all the same work style and communication preferences. By staying curious and paying attention to both their own preferences and the preferences of their colleagues, people can find ways to better interact with one another.
"That doesn't mean people [have] to change who they are," Wortham says. "It's about finding that space to bridge the gap and leverage [each other's] strengths."
One way to do so would be to use an assessment that helps you figure out what your personality and preferences are. People can share the results of these assessments with their managers and teammates so that everyone on the team has a better understanding of what each team member needs to succeed.
But it doesn't even have to go that far. Wortham says that people can simply start by observing themselves and their colleagues at work.
"Take stock of your preferences or style and consider what your colleagues may prefer, based on observations," Wortham says.
People don't have to play the guessing game, either. When in doubt, it's best to just talk to your colleagues about their preferences.
"Reach out to a person and say, 'Hey, I really want to make sure we're on the same page,'" Wortham says. "'I'm dedicated to your success and want to communicate with you in the best way possible. Here's what I'm thinking of. How does that work for you?'"
Through curiosity and conversation, most of the seemingly unbridgeable personality gaps in the workplace can be closed quite easily.
Managers: Pay Attention to Your Leadership Style
Much like introverts and extroverts have different communication and work preferences, they have different leadership preferences. If you're a manager, chances are you'll have a range of personalities on your team – and with them, a range of preferences. Managers also need to be curious about their leadership styles and how employees respond to their styles.
"Think about how your management style plays out with extroverts and introverts," Wortham says. "If you are working with teams who really enjoy details and time to reflect and prepare for things, then if you're someone who leads with a lot of great, big ideas and extroverted energy, you might see that the communication style isn't quite landing in the way they want."
Wortham encourages leaders to have conversations with their teams the same way she encourages colleagues to converse with one another.
"Just be curious," Wortham says. "Ask employees, 'What's your motivation? What's the management style that works for you?'"
Leaders and managers can also make sure that the introverts and the extroverts on their teams get along with one another by leading by example.
"Part of being a leader is creating an environment for everyone to really leverage all their strengths," Wortham says. "Set the tone. Let employees know that this isn't about being different from who they are, but about knowing when to create space and when to get curious about how they work with others."
Introverts and extroverts need not be mortal enemies. In fact, most introverts and extroverts probably have a lot more in common with one another than they thought they did.
Still, working with diverse personalities isn't always smooth sailing. As long as managers and workers alike stay curious and really consider the preferences of others, there's no reason why the loudest extrovert and the quietest introvert can't work together successfully.