The Introverts Among Us

Advancement pros discuss how they have embraced this personality trait and have made it work for them

By Theresa Walker

 The Introverts Among Us


You're an introvert? I never would have guessed it! That's the reaction Karen White, executive director of alumni relations at the George Washington University, typically hears when she identifies herself as an introvert. “Then they'll say something like, ‘But you're so good with people!’ ” White says with a laugh. “They are always surprised. It never even crosses their mind that an introvert would be in this role.”

Many people hold false impressions about what it means to be an introvert (or extrovert)—terms established by Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, to explain where people prefer to direct their attention and how they get their energy. Extroverts seek out stimulating environments and are energized by being with people, while introverts tend to focus more on their internal thoughts and feelings and require alone time to recharge. Introverts favor one-on-one interactions over large group settings like parties, where they are more likely to stay on the periphery and have deep discussions with one or two guests. That leads people to erroneously assume extroverts have good social skills and introverts don’t.

In the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain observes: “Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family.”

There are varying degrees of extroversion and introversion. No one is purely an introvert or extrovert. Experts say that everyone spends some of their time “extroverting” and some of it “introverting.”

Kay Summers, director of communications and marketing for the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C., is familiar with the mistaken assumptions that come with being an introvert. She delved into the topic soon after taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test as part of a leadership team-building exercise at her workplace about seven years ago. She learned that her personality type, INFJ, is observed among only 1 percent to 2 percent of the population.

“It was a revelation,” she says. “It gave me a lot of insight into why I had sometimes struggled to feel understood by colleagues. Learning more about the other personality types helped me feel less frustrated in the workplace because it gave me insight into why people were acting the way that they were acting, which had sometimes been confusing to me.”

Soon afterward, Summers trained to become a certified MBTI practitioner for her own professional development. She wanted to learn more about the 16 personality types and four pairs of dichotomies, recognize how the different personalities interact, and bring those insights into her work and personal life.

“The dichotomy between introversion and extroversion is fundamentally misunderstood,” Summers says. “There's a misconception that introvert equals shy and extrovert equals outgoing, but introversion is simply an orientation that's focused on one's inner mental activity, and extroversion is an orientation toward the outside world. It has more to do with where people get their energy.”

Extroversion versus introversion is one component of a person's four-part personality type that explains how people absorb and process information—how they make decisions based on inputs and what that process looks like to the outside world. “People tend to focus on the part that's most easily observed and visible—introversion versus extroversion,” Summers says, “but the other three parts [sensing versus intuition, thinking versus feeling, and judging versus perceiving] will better inform the decisions people make and the process they use to make them. All of the dichotomies represent preferences along a continuum. We all have the capacity to be more introverted or extroverted as the circumstances demand, but type tells you what your preference is and how strong it is.”

Summers is a highly expressed introvert, meaning she scores high on the introversion end of the spectrum. But when she gives a presentation, she says, “I'm extroverting all over the place. I'm making eye contact with people, and I'm trying to tell a good story to drive home my points. I don't look all that different from one of my extrovert colleagues, but I will need more time afterward to recharge my battery, because I just spent a lot of time and energy using the part of me that isn't my preference and thus isn't as natural for me.” A daylong retreat with her team, for example, may energize an extrovert but will drain Summers. “That doesn't mean I won't contribute or be part of the discussion at all times,” she says. “It's just going to take a lot out of me.”

Seeing Strengths

Why would someone who gets their energy from solitude choose advancement, a profession known for interacting with alumni,donors, and other institutional stakeholders?

“People often assume that individuals who work in outwardfacing units are extroverts, but some of our most effective development officers are introverts,” says JT Forbes, CEO of the Indiana University Alumni Association. Most of IUAA's staff members have undergone an MBTI assessment. “The point is not to classify or pigeonhole people, though,” Forbes emphasizes, “it's to play to their strengths.”

Maeve Strathy, a fundraising strategist at the Canadian firm Blakely, shares the belief that her introversion is a strength, but she was originally apprehensive about her future as a fundraiser. After starting out as a student caller while attending Wilfred Laurier University, Strathy began thinking that fundraising was the career for her. When she landed her first job as an alumni development officer at an independent school, Strathy found herself reporting to a “gregarious executive director who was a classic extrovert.”

“I watched him work and wondered if I would be able to do this work with my approach,” Strathy says. “Then I had the opportunity to practice my communication style in one-on-one meetings with alumni, and I got a lot out of the experience. I could properly connect with them and draw out important details. I realized that what I worried about being a weakness was actually a strength that could be leveraged,” because introverts enjoy engaging in deep conversations with individuals and listening and thinking about what people are saying.

“Being able to work a room is not the most important thing,” Strathy says. “There's another side to it. I love learning what inspires people to give. Being able to tap into that part of me helped me believe I could be successful as a fundraiser.”

White employs a similar strategy when she walks into a GW alumni event. “I always notice the people who are standing alone on the periphery. I tend to gravitate toward them because I know I am that person,” she says. “That's where I would be standing if I weren't acting in my professional role.”

She typically walks over to say hello, introduce herself, and ask about the person. That's not difficult to do as part of her job, but it's not White's natural tendency.

“As executive director of alumni relations, I can't be standing alone on the side hoping that  somebody will come over to talk to me,” she says. So White figuratively “puts on her get-out-and-mingle jacket” and starts helping others make connections.

“Working in communications at a university offers a fulfilling and purposeful way to communicate with people toward a goal,” says AU's Summers. “That kind of role really attracts introverts. I think all people have a desire to connect with other people, but it can be challenging for an introvert to do that in a way that feels authentic. Having to make those connections as part of your job satisfies that objective.”

Summers believes that introverts' inward inclination makes them naturally well-suited to working as strategic communicators. 

“If your preference is to work out in advance what you're going to say all the time,” Summers says, “you're that much more suited to a strategic communications role—and that's what introverts do. When I say something, it's because I've already thought it through.”

It's a viewpoint with which Kate Post, digital communications coordinator for California State University, Chico, also identifies. “People assume that because I work in social media that I must be extroverted,” she says. “Working in digital and social media is appealing because you're doing it alone, and you can make connections on your own terms. You have time to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it.” She also likes that there's not a lot of room for small talk in the customer service aspect of social media. “People get right to the issue. It's great for me because I prefer to communicate in writing,” says Post, who lists her personality type—INFJ—in her Twitter profile so that others can see that she's “one of those ‘quiet’ social people.”

To Assess or Not to Assess

At the Indiana University Alumni Association, staff members take several types of assessments, including MBTI. Afterward, people meet with a facilitator in small groups to understand the meanings of the different personality types, the preferences people have, and learn how to better work together.

“Previously, people were prone to personalizing or misunderstanding someone else's behavior,” Forbes says. “Now there's awareness that people are oriented to do things differently.”

Forbes and his colleagues use such knowledge not only to help them play to their strengths but also better appreciate other people's differences. “It's not about who is this type or that type but about how people relate to the world and where your energy comes from—a way of thinking and understanding yourself,” says Forbes, an extrovert who leads a staff that is more than two-thirds introverts. (About one-third to one-half of the population demonstrates a preference for introversion.) For Forbes, this has meant becoming more aware of how he manages people and learning to temper his natural tendencies. Extroverts, for example, are apt to process information aloud, while introverts prefer to do so internally.

“I've learned that the best way to get a response to a question I've posed in a meeting isn't asking introverts to answer in a large group,” he says. “It's better to email them later or stop by their office to check in.”

These lessons also inform how IUAA develops its programs. “We try to live by the principle ‘Do unto ourselves before we do unto others,’ ” Forbes says. The increasing focus on the alignment of career services and alumni relations means that the association is also making assessment resources available to its members—and taking people's preferences into account when working with volunteers.

While Summers supports understanding personality type, she doesn't necessarily believe that such assessments need to be used in every workplace. She prefers awareness over categorization.

“Each end of each dichotomy needs to be allowed to work in the way that can best facilitate their success,” she says. “As a manager, I need to be aware of who is on my team. I need to understand how people work best.” For example, if she supervises someone that she knows is an extrovert, Summers reminds herself that thinking out loud is an important part of the extrovert's thought process. “I have to be careful to allow for that and not shut it down as a distraction, because it's damaging to them if they can't do what they need to do to think,” she says. If she were supervised by an extrovert, Summers would want that person to understand that she does her best thinking internally. For instance, asking an introvert to instantaneously brainstorm ideas may put the person at a disadvantage. A better approach is to provide questions or topics to be discussed before a one-on-one meeting so that the staff member can show up properly prepared without feeling required to think out loud.

It's essential to consider how colleagues and employees do their best thinking and work, but that's not typically how offices operate, Summers says.

“Even though the population is pretty evenly split between introverts and extroverts, it's undeniable that many workplaces are better set up to facilitate the extrovert style of thinking, such as processing ideas out loud and making decisions in group settings in real time,” she says. “It's important to remember that introverts are valuable collaborators and team members, but they will always work better when their natural thinking preferences are respected. We just have to figure out the best way to do that.”

About the Author

Theresa Walker is a senior editor at Currents, where she covers the marketing and communications beat.