“The Introvert at Work” Revisited

Posted by jlubans on May 09, 2022

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Caption: Jimmy Buffett: If The Phone Doesn't Ring, It's MeMore country: “If the Phone Don’t Ring, It’s Me”

If you’ve been taking memory pills, you may recall my writing about introverts.
That essay was inspired by an article put out by the BBCs Christine Ro: “Latvia: Europe’s nation of introverts.
Ms. Ro was intrigued by a stand-out exhibit at the London Book Fair. It was the highly imaginative #iamintrovert campaign put on by “Latvian Literature”, the cultural agency in charge of promoting Latvian authors and books.
Given the great deal of notice by the press and other media, the introvert theme appeared to resonate for many. It did more than resonate! Many of us with the least bit of introversion could put ourselves in “I” the introvert’s shoes.
We’ve been there.
I was among those who found the exhibit refreshingly innovative and also relevant to the debate about introverts and extroverts in the workplace.
Prior to the epidemic, I had scheduled two of the principals behind the exhibit to speak to my University of Latvia class, Leadership and Literature.
I invited them because while their campaign was specific to authors and other book people, I thought the class would enjoy and learn from a discussion about introversion and leadership.
I wanted the students to consider how introverted leaders and followers help or hinder an organization.
If the “quiet people” have something to offer, how do we, as leaders or effective followers involve them in an organization's decision making?
I have workplace experience that the folks who do the least talking often give us the greatest insights into what we should be doing.
At the far end of the continuum, the extrovert can often dominate discussion at the expense of shutting down other ideas.
Well, here we are, it’s 2022 and I am back in Latvia.
It was natural (if extroverted) to talk with some of the people at Latvian Literature. I recently met with Anete Konste, Rita Dementjeva and Ildze Jansone.
Why the campaign? I asked.
The LL staff in brainstorming on the London Book Fair exhibit design had something like an epiphany, a good humored realization:
“We decided to stop pretending who we are not, and start to be proud of what we are. We’re better at writing than doing small-talk.”
Therefore, they proclaimed: “WE ARE PROUD TO BE INTROVERTS”
In other words, flipping what many – including introverts - perceive to be a weakness into a strength.
Their manifesto: “The world is a perfect place for extroverts. For the kind of people who know how to start a relaxed conversation with a stranger, perform in front of an audience, …. But we are different. Latvians can feel deeply confused when kissed on both cheeks.
… If someone compliments a Latvian, he will turn red white red.
Latvia is one of the world’s most introverted nations. And so are our writers, of course.
And we are proud of that.
We allow our books to speak for us, since literature is the perfect world for introverts.”
I wanted to talk with the creators about how to adapt that to the workplace, the very place that appears to reward the loudest voices and those most able to make impromptu speeches and to stand in the limelight. It’s not that they always speak with substance – it’s the “standing out from the crowd” that counts for the extrovert.
So, with the introvert “cat out of the bag” – the manifesto - it made sense to me to include what they did in the Leadership class.
Now, if you think this is all a flash in the pan, a “15 minutes of fame” ephemera, let me tell you how well Latvian Literature has done in accomplishing its goals.
Other countries are looking more closely at Latvian literature. In less than 6 years or so it has increased grants to editors and translators from 10 editions in 2016 to 50 editions in 2020.
There is also an uptick of interest among translators and editors.
In 2020 there were 53 Translator applications and 36 were approved. The previous year it was 31/27.
For editors there were 75 applications with 42 approved. The previous year, there were 31 editor applications with 29 approved.
But this is not to suggest that the introvert campaign is primarily responsible for the strong gains.
Anete Konste emphasized: “There is hard work in book fairs, literary visits, festivals behind it. The (introvert) campaign is only one part of our activities. It attracts attention and builds our brand, but nobody decides to translate or publish something just because of it.”
Agreed.
While the introvert theme has an appeal among book people, the notion of reversing negative perceptions of introversion can also apply to workplaces.
It begs the leader’s responsibility to free-up ideas in the organization – unless, of course, you are one of those leaders who have a monopoly on good ideas!
I have numerous examples that not infrequently the best ideas, the ones that solve problems, that enhance a product, that fix what needs fixing, often come from the quietest members of a staff, but only if they are prompted, if they are given the freedom and opportunity to express, to speak up.
What do you as a leader do to elicit ideas from the introverted?
When the Latvian Literature staff comes to my class, I hope they will address some of the above and other questions like,
How do you assure unspoken ideas become spoken?
What steps can the leader take to make sure that happens?
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Caption: From the #iamintrovert campaign, by the Latvian artist Reinis Pētersons and publicist Anete Konste. Used with permission. 2022.

“Nightmare” brings to mind my own experience with introversion. I was to be recognized for writing a quarterly column for a professional journal.
The ceremony would be at the annual convention in front of some several hundred members and the executive board.
I was flattered; I’d worked hard, took great care with what I wrote, and brought my own style to each essay. Feedback had been consistently positive; my column, readers said, was the first item they looked at.
But, as it turned out, the ”Board” belatedly decided to give awards to all the columnists not just to me!
So there would be four awards not just mine! My recognition award had been downgraded to a participation award!
At the ceremony, all of us were called to the stage and presented with plaques. The presenter then asked if we had some impromptu comments for the audience.
I waved to the audience and declined. It was, to paraphrase the Latvian manifesto, letting my written work speak for itself. The only one to speak was the columnist whose work was frequently the most rushed and least thought out. For me, she was an extrovert.
Not to be mean-spirited, but her speech was simply rubbing it into us introverts who took our writing seriously.
She would, by the way, eventually be elected to the board.

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And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle

© Copyright text by John Lubans 2022

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