The following is an adapted excerpt from my upcoming book, Boldly Quiet: The Introvert’s Guide to Developing the Mindset of a Successful Leader.
What is the stereotypical view of an introvert? Someone who is quiet, often thought of as shy, prefers to be alone, avoids conflict, doesn’t seek or desire attention, thinks deeply, prefers to write, listens intently, and is definitely not assertive. Since many of these stereotypical traits are the antithesis of the stereotype of a successful leader, the leader labeled as an introvert is automatically at a disadvantage in the competition for new opportunities. In her book, Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life, Francesco Gino, a well-respected author, researcher, and professor at Harvard Business School, tells us:
“Stereotypes can help us make sense of the world. But because they are mere generalizations, they can also stir up a great deal of trouble . . . When we buy into stereotypes, we can sometimes end up perpetrators of cruelty and discrimination, often without even being aware of it . . . When we’re not careful, stereotypes act like firewalls, blocking new information from penetrating our thoughts and preventing us from changing our minds unless something truly dramatic happens.”[i]
How does this apply in the business world? I believe if you don’t periodically push the boundaries of people’s perceptions of you, the walls of your leadership box will become more and more restrictive to the point where it is impossible to step outside of the boundaries because we start believing the boundaries drawn by people’s perceptions of us are real. And, if your primary label for yourself is “introvert,” people’s perceptions of you, i.e., the box, will be shaped by that stereotype.
A softer phrase for the phenomenon Gino described of being a “perpetrator of cruelty and discrimination, often without being aware of it” is “accidental diminisher,” where, because we think we equate who someone is or how they think with a stereotype, we often say well-meaning but insensitive things that reinforce the negative aspects of the stereotype. I was at a networking event and the head of the organization, an HR executive, asked me how I could handle the business development aspect of being self-employed since I was an introvert. While it may have seemed to this person like a logical and appropriate question, the implied message was that introverts cannot be successful as independent consultants. I left the meeting angry with him, but also with a seed of self-doubt. What if he was right?
What about the well-meaning, self-appointed leader of a discussion who, in line with the training she has received about leading small groups, says during a pause in a robust discussion, “Let’s give our quiet members a chance to speak,” implying we introverts are not capable of inserting ourselves into conversations when we have something to say. If I don’t come up with something to say—even if I have nothing to add to the conversation—the walls of the box surrounding me become stronger and more restrictive.
Gino discusses the concept of “stereotype threat,” or the tendency to “choke” and underperform due to the fear of bias. If I am reminded I am an introvert at the beginning of a meeting, I am more apt to act like the stereotypical introvert during the meeting. If, conversely, I am reminded I am a successful leader at the beginning of a meeting, my performance during the meeting will be more confident and engaged.
To continue my box metaphor, rebelling against the stereotype that constrains us means to intentionally and strategically expand the walls of your box. How? By periodically doing something unexpected that chips away, if not totally shatters, the stereotype that encases you.
I am an introvert with many strengths. Your box is too small for me.
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[i] Francesca Gino. Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life (New York, Dey Books, 2018), 113.