We all know that feeling when your social battery just completely depletes, and nothing is more enticing than a quiet night with a good movie and a glass of wine at home. For many people, the social battery drain is more frequent than you would think. Being an introvert in an extroverted society, yet alone a business environment, is a challenge of its own magnitude.
"I am very much an introvert in my natural state," says Lauren Zajac, Chief Legal and Compliance Officer of ExtraHop. "I have to work really hard to be extroverted in the way that is required of an executive. Frankly, it can be exhausting."
There must be many other executives around the world who share Zajac's plight. Not all of us are born naturally confident and comfortable with others; Forbes reports an estimated 30 to 50 percent of the US population are introverts, a figure that can surely be extrapolated globally.
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking and a former corporate lawyer, believes we live in a world biased towards extroverts. She writes that introverts' reflective and quiet nature is not appreciated, but assertive, outgoing people who thrive in teamwork and networking situations are.
Introverts, extroverts and ambiverts
There is a belief that introverts are simply quiet people who enjoy their own company, with extroverts being the outgoing socially-oriented creatures. Yet there is more to it than that. WebMD explains that these personalities come down to how you process the world around you. For example, extroverts recharge and gain energy from spending time with others, while introverts need self-reflection and alone time. Ambiverts, those who fall somewhere in the middle of the introversion-extroversion scale, also exist.
Executives and legal leaders such as Zajac have to deal with people constantly. Their job requires a lot of interaction, communication and collaboration - things an introvert might naturally avoid.
According to Zajac, there is another layer to her challenges as an introverted executive, and that is the generations of social conditioning that come with her gender. "The hardest aspect of being a female executive is that we are societally trained or focused on being people-pleasers to everyone - our parents, partners, husbands, bosses, you name it. I've talked to a lot of other female execs about this, and it's almost universally experienced."
There is an interesting parallel between introversion and female executives. Due to female leaders being a minority, they face additional pressures to make themselves heard and seen: in essence, to earn their seat at the table.
For introverted female leaders, this dichotomy can be overwhelming. Zajc's observation that women are inherently conditioned to people-please may align with subtle conditioning to introversion.
So how does one overcome their observation and perhaps gender barriers in the workplace to be an influential and respected leader? Zajac has found setting boundaries to be paramount, yet feelings of guilt surrounding this were something she used to battle with. "It's not what we are taught to do, and frankly I really struggled to overcome this."
It wasn't until she reached her 40s that she realized things had to change. "I couldn't keep going on in that manner."
The gift of time and the subsequent growth in her confidence allowed Zajac to become firm in deciding what she needed and how she would interact with others as a female executive.
Not surprisingly, the same goes for her introversion. "I began to intentionally say 'I'm going to shut off for today' or 'I can't have this conversation with you right now because I have nothing left in the tank'. Being firm in these choices allowed her to become a better leader and counsel as she was less burned out and more present in her work.
Making these kinds of changes isn't easy or linear. It takes repetition and practice. "The more you get comfortable with standing your ground, the less you beat yourself up internally," she says.
In a business world that consistently sees lawyers burned out, setting boundaries to protect yourself is paramount, especially if you are an introvert. Pondering all of this begs the question: when will we begin to value reflective thinkers, those who think more and say less? Perhaps the time to start should be now.