Sign up to myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about Susan Cain news.
People who think before they speak and who feel energised when focusing deeply on a subject or activity that really interests them might sound ideal job candidates with employers fighting to snap them up.
Yet organisations are more likely to hire individuals who “relish social life, and are energised by interacting with friends and strangers” – people who are “assertive, go-getting, and able to seize the day”.
These descriptions of introverts and extroverts are taken from the website of Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She believes institutions are so geared up to hiring extroverts that the best candidates do not always get the job.
Ms Cain’s book, published in 2012, argues that introverts require much less stimulation and operate at their best when they are allowed to do so in quieter and lower-key environments. A reader can conclude that noisier extroverts might not always be ideal and that introverts can be better for business.
Her views are supported by a 2010 study by the University of Pennsylvania management school that found introverted leaders typically deliver better outcomes than extroverts.
The researchers suggest this is because they are more likely to let proactive employees run with their ideas, whereas extroverts can feel threatened by employees who take too much initiative. The study also found introverts to be up to 20 per cent more likely to follow up colleagues’ suggestions than extroverts. This, say the researchers, is because introverts are better at leading and motivating initiative-takers.
However, this presents recruiters with a problem. According to Adam Riccoboni, co-founder of MBA & Company, an online talent marketplace, and co-author of The Art Of Selling Yourself: “Introverts just don’t present themselves in the same way as extroverts, being far more reluctant to sell themselves and their skills at interview stage.
“An important consideration for businesses is how well a candidate fits into the culture of the working environment. Therefore, sophisticated interviewers will often probe candidates on their lives outside of work. For introverts, who find it difficult to talk about themselves outside of work, this approach can be their downfall.”
How, therefore, can employers persuade introverts to blow their own trumpets about how they prefer not blowing their own trumpets?
Nicola McHale is leadership development coach and trainer with the Institute of Recruiters. She says: “Introverts don’t say anything unless it is worth saying. So the quality of their input is usually spot on. They think first before speaking and they ask great questions because they think fast.”
But she adds: “They can let themselves down in the recruitment process by coming across as shy, quiet, secretive, reactive and low energy. People usually do not realise how great an introverted candidate is until the second or third interview – or maybe even later – which means they can miss opportunities.”
One way recruiters can get round this, she says, is by sending out in advance as much information about the role as possible, because “introverts like to be prepared”.
Mr Riccoboni says his company tries to overcome candidates’ introversion by managing the expectations of clients.
“If a candidate is an excellent performer but not good at presenting themselves socially in interviews, we inform the client so they can make allowances,” he says. “This prevents an introvert being excluded solely because of their social skills, as the client evaluates the overall strengths and weaknesses of the candidate.”
He suggests interview questions should be changed, too. “One strong skill many introverts can have is the ability to listen. To get the best from an introvert an interviewer should be descriptive and informative in their question, enabling the candidate to process the information better and provide more effective answers.”
For example, instead of beginning with: “Tell me about yourself”, which an introvert might struggle with, an interviewer should add context and instead ask: “At this company our employees are all self-starters but strong team-players and our company culture rewards integrity and adaptability. How would you describe yourself in light of this information?”
An off-the-wall – or “curve-ball” – question can also bother many introverts. Mr Riccoboni says: “An extrovert might be able to handle ‘what song best describes your work ethic?’, but this approach would throw an introvert, who might be unable to see the relevance.”
In addition, he says introverts prefer time to think things through before responding. If an interview takes place on the phone, for example, there might be moments of silence that are misunderstood by the interviewer. “It may simply be the introvert taking time to formulate and share their thoughts,” he says, “but the interviewer might mistake it for a lack of experience or confidence.”
This equating of introversion with a lack of confidence or shyness is misleading and annoying to at least one self-confessed introvert. Jackie Allen, an advertising manager, says: “Confidence doesn’t necessarily equate to loudness. I actually know what I am doing and I know I get good results.”
She says she cares much more about the company profile than her own. “I feel way more comfortable working to business needs than having my own agenda. In fact, I actually quite like networking. I would just rather talk about the business than myself.”
Unfortunately, says Lisa Petrilli, author of The Introvert’s Guide to Success in Business and Leadership, introverts can be drained by the process of meeting people, while extroverts are energised by it. “Introverts might need more time to recharge through the process,” she says.
The group interview situation might also prove onerous for the less extrovert candidate. Ms Petrilli says: “Give them the opportunity to meet key interviewers one-on-one whenever possible rather than in large groups – and if a large group interview is necessary, offer downtime afterwards.”
She says introverts are a great asset if handled correctly. “They can and do thrive in virtually any role but in a different way and with different strategies.” It is vital, she says, that once they are in a role, they are given time to develop their own way.
“Introverts get their energy from their inner world of ideas, images, and thoughts, and from creating deep connections with people,” she adds. “As a result, they are exceptional at creating and communicating visions for their company and teams and strategies that align with those visions.”
Ms Petrilli says they can also make excellent leaders: “They create strong connections built on foundations of trust that inspire and motivate people to act.”
As Susan Cain says in her book: “We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.”
Get alerts on Susan Cain when a new story is published