By Joanna Rawbone
We’ve been hearing a lot about ‘Long-Covid’ and its effect on people’s health, but we can’t fail to notice how the term could equally be applied to business health. It’ll be months or even years before businesses recover, some may never be as healthy again and some won’t make it.
Unless you happen to be in one of those rare growth niches, you’ll probably have been involved in C-suite discussions regarding potential or actual redundancies, as a mechanism to enable the business to survive at all.
No-one relishes this and I bring a word of warning about how unconscious bias can creep into decisions being made about who to make redundant. Before you think this doesn’t apply to you, we all carry these biases as they are the cognitive shortcuts, we use to make quick decisions. And, for many of us, they are in our blind spot, unless we’ve worked to face them.
Many of you will have scrupulous redundancy processes and of course, we professionals are acutely aware of the protected characteristics, but there is one, large group who aren’t adequately protected: the neuro-diverse. That in itself is a broad category and in this instance, I’m talking about introverts.
Introversion: The seemingly last acceptable prejudice in the workplace
This is a quote from one of my clients, a communications specialist who recognises that the extraversion bias in endemic. There are still so many myths and misunderstandings about introversion, yet Carl Jung explained that its down to what drains and what charges our mental batteries. And the bitter-sweet irony is what drains one, charges the other. Introverts are already over stimulated mentally so need to be mindful of additional stimulation, whereas extraverts require social interaction, and active experiences in order to recharge their mental batteries. We can all flex our behaviour to some degree, but at what cost?
If introverts are quiet, and not all are by the way, it’s because they’re trying to preserve useable charge in their mental batteries, so they can do their best work. The very thing we pay them for. Imagine the drain they experience daily when working in a busy, open-plan office. This is why they tend not to join in with the office banter. It’s not because they’re arrogant or think they’re better than everyone else. And if they don’t contribute volubly at meetings, it’s because they tend to speak when they have something of value to add. It’s not because they’re not engaged. If they don’t answer your questions right away, it’s because their communication process is ‘think-say-think’, so they need time to reflect and give their considered response. It’s not because they don’t have an opinion or are shy.
Yet these are the very qualities that tend to get introverts marked down in performance reviews and appraisals. Worse than that, I’ve worked with people who have had plaudit after plaudit about their communications and inclusive approach, then told it was substantive weakness, which finally had them on the redundancy list. This is unfair, unprofessional and reeks of bias.
But the thing about unconscious bias is, well, its unconscious! Many organisations have embarked on programmes of education, thinking they were doing the right thing only to be told that it has ‘no sustained impact’. Yet, biases are the obstacles in our way to real inclusion.
It’s still important to become aware of where we may be biased towards more extraverted employees when it comes to equitable redundancy selection. Managers I work with have reported finding it easier to ‘get on with’ the more extraverted chatty types, claiming that their introverted colleagues are ‘hard work’. This could be an example of Affinity Bias, if the manager is an extravert. Or it may have been Perception Bias, where the myths around introverts are believed to be true. These myths include introverts being thought of as sad, lonely, even depressed people. Confirmation Bias is found when we judge them for preferring to take lunch on their own, or when they don’t have stories to share at the beginning of the week about their riotous weekend. And if they do share about something unusual they’ve been doing, they tend to get looks of disbelief.
The Perception Bias is what makes it difficult to make truly objective judgements about the more introverted employees, which often goes against them when it comes to selection for redundancy. Vernā Myers in her TED talk ‘How to Overcome our Biases’ said: “Biases are the stories we make up about people before we know who they actually are.” And unless people have taken time to get to know what makes an introvert tick, then they remain a mystery and classified as ‘hard to get to know’.
And with up to 50% of any population identifying as an introvert, we are potentially talking about significant numbers of your workforce. Not that many introverts would publicly raise their hand to claim “I’m an introvert”, because of having been relentlessly mocked in the past.
Do you know how many introverts are pretending in order to fit in and get on? And imagine the toll it takes on them. Spending your working days pretending to be something you’re not is soul destroying. And I should know. Introverts can flex their behaviour if their batteries are sufficiently charged, but too long spent in a culture that expects them to be something they’re not and they face overwhelm, feel inauthentic and eventually leads to burn-out. From there, it’s a long road back.
Strengths of an Introvert
We’re sufficiently aware enough now to know that strengths are not just things that people are good at. Real strengths also light us up and strengthen us, that’s why we can do them to a consistently high standard.
So, what are the typical strengths of an introvert? Here are a few that I’ve noticed my clients have in common.
Listening – with ears and eyes! Introverts typically notice what isn’t being said
Observing – they notice more than most and can take in unexpected detail
Problem solving – the more challenging the better and they’re great at sticking with it to uncover the root cause
Meaningful conversation – they get into the serious stuff that matters and ask insightful questions
Thought-through creativity – well researched and considered, so ready to be incorporated with the spontaneous problem-solving situations
Calmness – good at defusing situations and avoiding drama
Well-prepared – more likely to do the pre-work and be ready to participate
Engaged – Quietly self-motivated, resourceful and focused. Many introverts find getting into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines as a state of consciousness called Flow, relatively easy in the right conditions.
Written communications – usually preferred to the spoken word
If you fail to value these and other natural strengths of the introvert, and then select them for redundancy, your business loses those valuable qualities.
So, here’s my question for you – Where would your business be without these qualities? Great businesses have, and really value, the diversity of their workforce.
Kites rise highest against the wind – not with it.
Many businesses though have mistakenly thought they won’t miss the quieter ones, failing to recognise that their head-down, focused approach is usually highly productive and effective.
More worrying is when the decision is made based on the assumption that it’s simpler to select the quieter ones as they won’t kick up a fuss. This is surely both bias and discrimination at its worst! The most troubling story shared with me concerned an introverted leader who was made redundant because she was quietly effective, managing the largest account very successfully with her team. She was selected for redundancy over an extraverted, and somewhat maverick, male colleague. This account director had a high churn of team members, who quoted him as the reason for leaving in their exit interview. When she asked about the decision process used, she was very honestly told that he’d threatened to ‘lawyer up’ if he was made redundant. Whilst it’s not right to bow to that kind of threat, it is a scary prospect for a business already under pressure.
Fortunately, many great leaders and influencers, past and present, are happy to own their introversion. They include Richard Branson, Barack Obama, Simon Sinek, Larry Page, Marissa Mayer, Albert Einstein, Jim Sinegal, Rosa Parks, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. That’s a remarkable and far from exclusive list. Many of these leaders have an enviable calmness and presence, enabled in part by knowing who they are and being comfortable in their own skin. They are impressive in a quiet, understated way, proving not all leaders have to be loud to be effective. Introverted leaders are known for valuing thinking as an important business skill and therefore they create space for it.
Take time to ensure that your selection process is objective and not influenced by unconscious bias. We all carry bias, so the only shame is thinking it doesn’t apply to you. Take time to reflect on your decisions, use a peer review process and don’t automatically select the quieter ones for redundancy. Not only will you be missing out on their fine and much needed qualities, but you’ll be falling foul of real diversity, equity and inclusion.
About Joanna Rawbone:
Joanna has spent more than 24 years working with 000’s of international clients through her own training & coaching consultancy, Scintillo Ltd. During this time, and through her own earlier experiences, she has seen just how problematic the Extraversion bias in organisations is. It negatively impacts employee engagement, retention and productivity. It also impairs the physical and mental health & well-being of employees with the obvious consequences.
Recognising that it was time for action, Joanna founded Flourishing Introverts, a platform to:
* support those who want to fulfil their potential without pretending to be something they’re not.
* educate and inform organisations about the true cost of overlooking their introverts
* promote positive action and balance the extraversion bias
Joanna has a real passion for helping her clients make the small but sustainable changes that really make a difference. Being a functioning introvert, her clients value her ability to listen to more than the words, understand things from their perspective and co-create robust, pragmatic solutions.