Improving Interactions

Exploring the roles of introverts and extroverts in group dynamics

Mitchell Stephenson

We usually think about communication in the context of ourselves and the person with whom we’re speaking. When it comes to one-on-one interactions, there are all kinds of things to pay attention to. You should be aware of your body language, your tone of voice and the actual words you are using. When it comes to communicating within a group setting, it gets even more complicated.

One of the areas in a group setting that actuaries should pay special attention to is the dynamics between introverts and extroverts. Introverts are individuals who tend to generate energy—or recharge—by spending time alone. Extroverts generate energy by being around and interacting with other people. One of the ways that personality tests determine whether you are more introverted or extroverted is by posing a hypothetical scenario. The scenario often asks about whether you feel energized after spending time in a group setting. For example, if you attend a three-hour party, do you feel so exhausted when it’s over that you want to go home and rest? Or do you feel more energized and want to stay for another three hours? If you answer that you want to stay, you’re probably more extroverted. If not, it’s likely that you are an introvert.

Actuaries as Introverts and Extroverts

The website Introvert Retreat lists the percentage of introverts in the general population to be between 25 and 50 percent.1 While we don’t have statistics specifically on the actuarial profession, the public perception is that we are largely an introverted group. One of the primary reasons for this is the way in which we achieve our credentials. The actuarial exam process requires a significant amount of self-study time. This activity attracts many individuals who generate energy by spending quiet time alone—in other words, introverts.

The work of actuaries can require intensive calculations and models that may take a long time to develop, build and review. This process is appealing to individuals who thrive in an environment where they work alone. In fact, the actuarial profession frequently appears on job lists as one of the best professions for introverts. In her article, “The 20 Best Jobs for Introverts,” author Melissa Stusinski explains why: “Introverts can earn a great living by working with numbers rather than people.” An actuarial job “doesn’t require a lot of interaction with others because it is more about calculating numbers than customer service.”2

While this may be true in some cases, an actuary must be able to communicate and interact effectively with others to be successful, no matter how introverted he or she may be. For those of us who are introverts, we need to identify the best ways to communicate with others so that we are heard. We need to ensure that our views are considered. Conversely, extroverted actuaries need to identify the best ways to take into account the viewpoints of others, especially those of more introverted individuals. Doing this helps us to consider all of the various inputs from the members of our group.

The Importance of Considering Others

Scott E. Page is the Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science and Economics at the University of Michigan. He is also a researcher who studies the role of diversity in complex systems. In his keynote address during the 2017 Society of Actuaries (SOA) Annual Meeting & Exhibit, Page explained that diverse groups typically outperform individuals. This is due to something he calls the diversity bonus. Page demonstrated this by looking at several examples where models have been combined to generate more accurate results than those achieved by any one of the individual models. He argued that this concept applies to people as well as to mathematical models.3 The more diverse viewpoints you have in a room, the better the overall result is likely to be. Without hearing from everyone, specifically those introverted individuals who may be less comfortable interacting in a group setting, it’s not possible to achieve a full sampling of diverse viewpoints. Therefore, we may not be achieving our best outcome as a group when we limit the full participation of both introverted and extroverted employees.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has written extensively about the subject of dynamics among introverts and extroverts in the workplace. She was a keynote speaker at the 2012 SOA Annual Meeting & Exhibit. Cain argues that the workplace environment is moving more and more toward one that favors extroverts and their strengths over those of introverts. Some examples of this include group collaboration activities and open architecture floor spaces, where physical boundaries like cubicle walls are removed. While there are many benefits to these changes, introverts, who generate their best energy in their own space while being alone, can struggle with them.

Cain also points out that brainstorming is particularly challenging for introverts. The idea of brainstorming is to encourage a free-flowing exchange of ideas among the members of the group. Typically, the more extroverted employees who feel more comfortable speaking early and often in a group setting will set the tone of the meeting. The rest of the group then may begin “mirroring” the tone or mood set by those who speak the earliest and loudest. This may result in the group arriving at a decision that has nothing to do with the best possible answer.4 This outcome is obviously something we want to avoid.

Improving Communication Dynamics

The good news is that there are specific steps we can take as individual contributors, or as managers, to encourage the best communication dynamics among introverted and extroverted team members in a group setting. Here are a few specific actions we can take.

Prepare for, or Ask Others to Prepare for, Brainstorming Sessions

Have you attended a meeting recently with a somewhat cryptic topic, no agenda and no additional information available to the meeting invitees? That can make it very difficult for anyone to come in prepared to discuss what you want them to discuss, even if they are the subject-matter experts. If the purpose of the meeting is to discuss a topic, make sure the attendees know what they will be expected to discuss ahead of time. This will provide everyone a chance to thoroughly think through and prepare to discuss the topics at hand. Some may choose to do this on the spot in the meeting, while others may need to prepare ahead of time. If you don’t send out the agenda first, you’ll never give those that need to prepare the chance to do so. If you will be attending a brainstorming session, ask what you’re going to need to talk about or request an agenda prior to the meeting. The meeting organizer will almost certainly comply. This will then provide you with a chance to prepare to participate as fully as possible in the discussion.

Make Sure to Hear From Everyone

If you’ve called a meeting of six people and four have dominated the discussion, make sure to ask the other two for their viewpoints. Why else did you invite them? You may receive some valuable information or insight just by calling on those who have been quiet during the discussion. Jonathon Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, said that a manager’s most important role is to “give the quiet ones a voice.”5 To do that, you must listen to all attendees. If you are more introverted and find it difficult to get a word in edgewise during group discussions, offer your ideas early in the meeting. It may help to set the tone of the discussion when you provide your opinion up front.

Don’t be Afraid to be a Contrarian

In their book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, authors Ori and Rom Brafman describe a study in which research participants were placed in rooms with a group of actors. One participant was placed among the actors in each room. The participants were not aware that the other people in the room were actors—they thought they were all there to participate in the study. A researcher then came in and asked the group a series of questions. When the actors all gave the same wrong answer to the questions, the research participants gave the same wrong answer about 75 percent of the time. They did this even when it was obviously the wrong answer. However, if only one of the actors gave a different answer than the rest of the group, even if it was not the right answer, then it encouraged the research participants to say what they really felt was correct.6 The point is, presenting a viewpoint contrary to the rest of the group, or being the devil’s advocate, may be an effective strategy in drawing out what others really think. This is like a strategy Apple co-founder Steve Jobs sometimes employed. Jobs would state a strong point of view to a group, maybe even something controversial, and then demand a response.7 By advancing an idea with which he knew others may disagree, he reasoned that it would get them to discuss what they really felt the most strongly about.

Conclusion

Working in a group setting can be difficult. There is a lot to think about in terms of how you present yourself to others and what effect you can have on the group dynamics. To “give the quiet ones a voice,” whether you are introverted, extroverted, an individual contributor or a manager, keep these tips in mind as they can help you to improve the dynamics of your team.

When speaking about group dynamics and being challenged by his employees, Jobs said: “I don’t mind being wrong. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.”8

Keep in mind that the goal of working in a group is to do the right thing, tap into its diversity and, ultimately, to arrive at the best possible answer. The faster and more efficiently you get there, the better your team will perform.

Mitchell Stephenson, FSA, MAAA, is a director and actuary, Actuarial Model Governance, at Prudential Financial in Hartford, Connecticut. He is also the vice chair of the SOA Leadership & Development Section.

References:

  1. 1. “Introversion FAQ.” 2017. Introvert Retreat. http://introvertretreat.com/introversion-faq/.
  2. 2. Stusinski, Melissa. 2016. “The 20 Best Jobs for Introverts.” Business Pundit. July 11. http://www.businesspundit.com/20-best-jobs-for-introverts-04-2016/.
  3. 3. Page, Scott. 2017. The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  4. 4. Cain, Susan. 2012. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown/Random House.
  5. 5. Scott, Kim. 2017. Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  6. 6. Brafman, Ori, and Rom Brafman. 2009. Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior. New York: Crown.
  7. 7. Supra note 5.
  8. 8. Carey, Ryan. 2013. “The Eight Greatest Quotes From Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview.” Paste Magazine. March 6. https://www.pastemagazine.com/blogs/lists/2013/03/the-eight-most-important-passages-from-steve-jobs-the-lost-interview.html.