The Leadership Dangers of Confusing Introversion with Shyness

Leadership Danger of Confusing Introversion with ShynessThe July 8, 2012 edition of the New York Times included an article entitled, “The Spotlight Dims and Shyness Sets In” which states:

The terms “shy” and “introvert” are used almost interchangeably and without distinction in the common parlance. “Psychologists debate about the overlap,” said Susan Cain, author of the recent book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” which extols the power of those who prefer listening to speaking, or reading to socializing. “Shyness is fear of social judgment, a consuming worry about how people view you. Introversion is more about a preference for environments that are less stimulating: someone who’d rather have a glass of wine with a close friend than go to a cocktail party.”

I was unhappy to see this paragraph because I believe it leads readers to believe it’s OK to use the terms “shy” and “introvert” interchangeably. And yet, per the experts on introversion (The Myers Briggs Foundation, whose work is “to continue the pioneering work of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers in the field of psychological type, especially the ethical and accurate use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® instrument”), shyness and introversion are not related and not to be confused.

Why the danger? Because like it or not, others judge us by the labels we place on ourselves. And because I believe this article overgeneralizes and casts an unfair and inaccurate light on introversion, with ramifications for introverts in the world of business and leadership.

If I tell someone I’m an introvert they usually say something like, “I never would have guessed that…you seem so confident (or bubbly, or sociable).” And then I go on to tell them that introversion has nothing to do with confidence, (or bubbliness or sociability) and everything to do with where I get my energy and my preference and love for my inner world of ideas, memories and vision for the future. Typically the other person’s eyes then glaze over and I realize just how much misunderstanding exists in the world about us introverts!

In response to the article: I enjoy a stimulating cocktail party or rock concert as much as my extroverted friends and colleagues, but my preference is to go knowing that I can stay “in my element” by attending with a few close friends. And when the party or concert is over, I’ll need time to be alone or have that quiet drink with a close friend in order to recharge, something my extroverted friends will not need to do. I prefer socializing to reading, but when it’s time to recharge I might spend time alone with a good book…

So why am I worried about the subtlety here? Because I believe there is a real danger in mischaracterizing introverts. I fear:

  • Introverts will read descriptions like this and believe they shouldn’t even bother going to cocktail parties (and yet networking is so important to success in business and leadership!)
  • Introverts will be tempted to succumb to the challenges we face rather than feeling empowered by our strengths, including vision, creativity, and world-changing ideas
  • Introverts will garner from articles like this that they are somehow not destined for success, and won’t pursue strategies that can help them be extremely successful in life
  • Extroverts will misjudge us and not consider us for leadership roles or promotions into positions in which we could excel, and introverts will misinterpret this as a lack of aptitude or competence – with damaging consequences to our career and perhaps even our self-esteem
  • Extroverted leaders will mistake our preference for working alone or in small groups to mean we can’t succeed at leading a large team – and will miss out on our brilliant ability to do so
  • The world will miss out on our ability to shine as leaders. If it misses out even a little bit, it’s a detriment to the planet!

Thus, I will continue my mission to empower and encourage introverts all over the world to truly connect to, and understand, who they are and how they light up the world by being more of who they are meant to be! Are you with me?


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  1. I think you are over-reacting a bit. As a fellow introvert, I understand the difference and greatly appreciate your efforts to dispell the stereotype of shy=introvert.

    The distinctions appear clear to me in the paragraph, but I didn’t go read it in full context. They clearly could have made the distinction stronger, or said clearly they were unrelated, but I think it is a fair paragraph.

    Maybe the beginning where they say it is commonly viewed as overlapping set your mindset in a bad spot?

    Regardless, keep up the excellent work.


    • Thank you, Pie, I appreciate that and appreciate your willingness to share your perspective here. I am concerned when generalizations are made about introverts, such as preferring books to socializing, and when the myths are not dispelled. Given that this was the NY Times, which is read by millions of people, it was a great opportunity to absolutely dispel the myth rather than allowing more confusion. That’s all. I’m just a little passionate about it. :) Thank you again and I genuinely do appreciate your thoughts that I may be overreacting a bit. All the best to you!

  2. I’m so glad you wrote about this! I saw that NY Times article and had the same reaction. A great example of this is I’m on the road all week. I’ll be in four cities in five days and get on stage four times. Mr. D wants me to meet new friends of his for brunch on Saturday. He’s an extrovert so he doesn’t understand that, after being around people all week and being “on,” I won’t have the energy to meet new people for the sixth day in a row. Now if it were a week from Saturday…
    Gini Dietrich (@ginidietrich)´s last blog post ..Was Samuel Adams America’s First PR Man?

    • Gini, so glad to know other introverts felt the same way. And thank you so much for the example you provided! If you went to the brunch and didn’t say much because you were completely drained from the experience during the week, your husband’s friends would probably judge you as shy and think you didn’t like to socialize… I really appreciate you taking the time during your hectic travels to share your thoughts here, Gini! Hope to see you again soon!

    • Gini, I’m with you sister. I’m split pretty close between the E & I but I tire much more quickly when I have to be “on” as you say. I am a commercial property manager and as much as I enjoy the people aspect of my role, when I am showing property or entertaining the corporate brass I leave those meetings emotionally spent and barely able to think. Most people that know me wouldn’t think I was an introvert because they have that stereotypical understanding of that word and I function quite well in social situations. I have learned to communicate with my superiors and explain that I’m at my best when these aspects of my role can be followed by periods of quiet so I can recoup and regather my thoughts. More often than not they are understanding even though we differ in this respect. One thing they know for sure is they don’t want me there unable to think or communicate :)
      Tina´s last blog post ..Enduring Public Humiliation

  3. Dear Lisa,
    Humans seem to love labels and they do cause trouble. They stop many from learning through the comfort they create. When learning stops, bias silently creeps into the culture.

    Introverts draw energy from and process internally. Many aren’t shy at all — they are just taken for shy because they are thinking quietly before they speak. Meanwhile extroverts become more energized as they go and process from that energy. Thus people label them as shallow thinkers when many are just the opposite.

    The one thing that can stop the bias is for people to actually state what they are so others can see the truth rather than skew with bias. As an extrovert, I could see how others were labeling introverts unfairly and wrote this post:
    Introverted Leaders, Revelations on Communication

    Keep the great posts coming Lisa and all who want to be part of this conversation will be one layer of protection against the bias you mention above.

    Kudos and regards,
    Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™´s last blog post ..A Winning Response to Customers’ Complaints About Teammates

    • Very eloquently said, Kate. Thank you so much for sharing your extroverted perspective here and for shedding some light on the impact of labels to you as well. I sincerely appreciate it!

  4. Carolyn b says:

    I am shy and introverted – I feel like this article while a good one – gives a negative impression of shy people and quite often people are both as the characteristics are similar.

    • Thank you, Carolyn and I absolutely appreciate your perspective. I apologize if this was the impression as it was certainly unintended! While there may be some introverts who are also shy, there are many who are not (like me). The characteristics, simply in my opinion, are very discernable but often misunderstood by extroverts and people who are not shy. So they mistakenly lump the two together. My fears for the impact in business and leadership revolve around the labels and how others will make assumptions about us based on those labels. But being shy or introverted is never a negative – we should embrace our true selves regardless and seek to be our selves and never try to act as someone else. Thank you for your honesty and for taking the time to share your thoughts here, I sincerely appreciate it!

  5. Hi Lisa,

    I think you are ‘right on the money’ regarding the generalization and also the mixing up of Introversion and Shyness. Indeed, there are lots of introverts who believe that they are shy, largely because others have said they are. In my teens and for most of my twenties I thought I was shy. The thing is I had no problem interacting with others, taking on leadership roles and being out in social settings. I however preferred the ‘quieter’ things in life (reading a book, puzzles – generally a lot of things that didn’t necessarily require the involvement of others). These are the things it is thought that shy people gravitate towards; I gravitate towards them so I was considered to be shy.
    Dwight´s last blog post ..Tips On How To Overcome Social Anxiety

    • Dwight, yours is such a great example of how this can happen! I really appreciate you sharing it here and applaud you for recognizing that what you were attracted to was activities where you could be immersed in your inner world. Wishing you all the best!


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