Being a Great Analyst, Even as an Introvert

Analytics professionals are often told they need to be good at collaborating with the business, outgoing advocates of their analysis, and good storytellers. I always thought this was good advice, but lately I've been thinking how very difficult this might be for some people.

What's got me thinking is a book I've been reading, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. You may have heard of it, as it came out in January 2012. A family member thought I might like it, so lent me a copy to read, and, coincidentally, just yesterday I noticed the paperback version at my local Costco.

The author, herself an introvert, examines the rise of what she calls the Extrovert Ideal, questions the thinking that has made extroversion such a valued business quality, and shares the stories of one successful introvert after the next -- from Rosa Parks to Steve Wozniak. The book is chockful of history, psychology, and neuroscience, an interesting cultural exploration of these personality traits.

Defining the traits
As Cain points out, you won't find a standard definition of introversion and extroversion, as personality psychologists all bring their own perspectives to bear in defining these sorts. A good starting place for understanding the difference is with the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who popularized the terms "introvert" and "extrovert" with his 1921 tome, Psychological Types. Jung theorized that introverts tend to look inward to their own thoughts and feelings while extroverts direct their attention outward to other people and external activities. Introverts are often shy, though shyness and introversion are not one and the same. They tend to be contemplative and reserved, especially in contrast to the stereotypical aggressive, outgoing, social animal known as the extrovert.

Notice my repeated use of the word "tend" in that preceding paragraph. This is not black and white. Some introverts will be capable of acting as if they're extroverts when charged with responsibilities such as leading a roundtable discussion, delivering a keynote address, conveying the results of an analytics project to business leaders, and other outward-facing activities. Introverts, in other words, aren't incapable of doing well in the business world that demands they be extroverted -- it's just neither their natural inclination nor their preference.

Adapting to the extrovert value
But introverts who want to get someplace in business must play by the extrovert's rules. As Cain states in her introductory remarks, "The pressure to entertain, to sell ourselves, and never to be visibly anxious keeps ratcheting up." In fact, she goes on to explain:

    The most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), the psychiatrist's bible of mental disorders, considers the fear of public speaking to be a pathology -- not an annoyance, not a disadvantage, but a disease -- if it interferes with the sufferer's job performance.

The anecdote she uses to place this in a business context is one to which most any introverted analytics professional could relate.

    "It's not enough," one senior manager at Eastman Kodak told the author Daniel Goleman, "to be able to sit at your computer excited about a fantastic regression analysis if you're squeamish about presenting those results to an executive group." (Apparently it's OK to be squeamish about doing a regression analysis if you're excited about giving speeches.)

Today we tell analytics professionals that the difference between good and great centers on their ability to tell people about the data and the secrets they've discovered within it. But, as Cain's research has shown, the ability to tell a nice story doesn't correlate with greater insight, intelligence, or analytical prowess. So, I have to wonder, is it possible that some of the people who are of greater value to a company, because they can get to that desired insight, are the ones shunted off to the sidelines on projects, have their input dismissed as a matter of course, or perhaps are even let go or moved out of the analytics group simply because they are introverts not interested in self-aggrandizement?

As "one highly successful venture capitalist" told Cain:

    "It's so easy to confuse schmoozing ability with talent. Someone seems like a good presenter, easy to get along with, and those traits are rewarded. Well, why is that? They're valuable traits, but we put too much of a premium on presenting and not enough on substance and critical thinking."

Let's not delude ourselves -- the business world is not going to do an about-face and start exalting introversion over extroversion. But what Cain has attempted in Quiet is to wake everybody up to the fact that more people than you might expect are introverts. This is especially important for managers to remember, she suggests, as "one third to one half of your workforce is probably introverted, whether they appear that way or not." A smart manager will play to their strengths -- "these are the people who can help you think deeply, strategize, solve complex problems, and spot canaries in your coal mine" -- rather than continuously thrusting them in uncomfortable situations, be that open office plans, birthday lunches, or team-building outings.

Likewise, she says, let their creativity shine through solo problem-solving or by gathering ideas electronically rather than in a group exercise that plays to the extroverts in the crowd.

And, for the introverts themselves, Cain gets a bit of touchy-feely with her advice, but it's still solid:

    Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it. If this requires public speaking or networking or other activities that make you uncomfortable, do them anyway. But accept that they're difficult, get the training you need to make them easier, and reward yourself when you're done.

Readers, I'd love to know whether you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert, and how that plays out for you at work. Take our latest Quick Poll, "Personality Test," at right, and share your experiences on the comment board. And, in case you're not quite sure where you fit on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, jump to the next page for a quick self-assessment.

Next Page: Introvert-Extrovert Quiz

Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors,, and others.

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Re: Extroverts and Cold Showers
  • 8/13/2014 10:09:26 AM

Interesting, @magneticnorth. I've not run into this site before -- but have bookmarked it now. I think it's incumbent upon business professionals, especially managers but also anybody working in collaborative environments, to recognize personality type and how that affects how a person approaches assignments and deals with others. But, as you note, oversimplification (or stereotyping) can be a challenge -- a pretty big one, too, since lots of people aren't going to want to do more than a cursory read on personality.

Re: Extroverts and Cold Showers
  • 8/12/2014 10:44:33 PM

@Beth If you'd like to understand Jung's framework, I recommend reading the Jung section of this page. It's a lot to digest, but it's thorough enough to do Jung justice. That's the beauty of his typing method, in my opinion: it helps us understand people through type without oversimplifying them. It allows for classification but also accommodates variety in growth stages, environments, personal decisions, etc.

Re: Introvert department
  • 8/12/2014 9:57:41 AM

@Jamescon Getting something done and done well are decisions that one has to make. A J may very well slack off as the P delivers the output speedily. Like Beth wrote, we're talking about tendencies here. The J simply tends to yearn for closure while the P seeks to explore. Any mature individual, whether J or P, will be able to distinguish when it's best to keep exploring and when it's time to put one's foot down. The resulting dynamics of tendencies and decisions make the workplace a very colorful one indeed!

Re: Introvert department
  • 8/12/2014 8:43:07 AM

@magneticnorth. Actually, if I recall right, the Perceivers still get the job done (by deadline and well), just not with the same planned approach that the J's take. Right?

Re: Introvert department
  • 8/11/2014 9:20:39 AM

@tinym -- is that to say, then, that you guys were able to identify fairly easily what sort of person, introversion/extroversion wise, you were interviewing? 

Re: Extroverts and Cold Showers
  • 8/11/2014 9:16:27 AM

@magneticnorth -- thanks for sharing more on Jung's introversion-extroversion theory. I've not read on the topic other than in Quiet, so this is all fascinating to me. 

Re: Introvert department
  • 8/11/2014 8:39:46 AM

@magneticnorth fascinating, so the P people go after the shiny and new but aren't really reliable. I'm definitely in the J group.

Re: Extroverts and Cold Showers
  • 8/11/2014 2:13:43 AM

@Beth Under Jung's framework, a person not only has one cognitive function, but FOUR. Each of these alternate in terms of introversion and extroversion. For example, I'm an INTJ, and my functions are Ni (introverted intuition), Te (extroverted thinking), Fi (introverted feeling), and Se (extroverted sensing). I won't go into what each of those mean, but suffice it to say that each person has a built-in mix of introverted functions (how you deal with yourself) and extroverted functions (how you deal with the outside world). What makes an introvert and an extrovert is the primary function. Mine, for example, is introverted intuition, so I'm an introvert. I use introverted intuition the most and have used it since birth. What happens to the other three? For a person to mature, he has to develop the succeeding functions, especially the second one. It's how one attains a basic balance between the inner world and the outer world. So, a mature individual, whether he be an introvert or an extrovert, should be able to comfortably dwell in his inner world and interact with others. The difference is that introverts rest by being alone and extroverts rest by going to a party.

If a person does not develop the second function in due time, he develops a "loop" between the primary and tertiary functions, which are either both introverted or both extroverted. An introvert who's in a loop will be closed in on himself, while an extrovert will always be swayed by the rest of the world. There's a personality disorder for each type of loop.

Re: Introvert department
  • 8/11/2014 1:49:06 AM

@Jamescon yes! You're referring to the last pair, the J (Judger) and P (Perceiver). The Js get things done. The Ps like new things, but they usually don't get done.

Re: Speak up, the new Quick Poll
  • 8/11/2014 1:44:51 AM

Under Jung's framework, the types that hit it off easily are, indeed, opposites. They tend to click because they find each other's worlds fascinating. But not all opposites are created equal. The ones that work are extroverts and introverts of the same cognitive function, e.g. an extroverted thinker and an introverted thinker. We only have to look at our office or our neighborhood to find opposites that don't attract. Usually, that would be the opposite cognitive function, e.g. an introverted intuitive and an extroverted sensor. That's me and a former boss right there ;)

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