It is really exciting what science is discovering about our brains and what it means for how we get along with each other in the world. For example, consider introversion and extroversion.
We all used to think that extroversion meant you got your energy from being around people and introversion meant you got your energy from being alone. That turns out to be a simplistic way to describe it.
Here are new descriptions of introversion and extroversion based on current scientific research captured succinctly in this article from Benzinger titled “The Physiology of Type: Introversion and Extroversion”:
Our arousal level identifies the amount and speed of our brain’s activity. …
Having a naturally low level of arousal which causes the individual to seek higher than normal levels of stimulation in order to “feel alive.”
Typical ways in which the extravert seeks stimulation include: trying to influence or control his or her environment; confronting others; engaging in competition; attending crowded parties or events “where the action is.”
Having a naturally high level of arousal which causes the individual to seek lower than normal levels of stimulation in order to not feel overwhelmed.
Over a period of years, this need to not be overwhelmed by external stimulation develops into an internally focused thinking style which may seem withdrawn, meditative, quiet, or even reclusive to more extraverted person. Typical ways in which the introvert seeks to control the level of stimulation include: spending time reading, reflecting, or otherwise alone; avoiding or being accommodating to others; competing mostly with oneself or self image; going to small parties or out of the way places.
An obvious way for a person to get more external stimulation is to be around a lot of people. That is where we get the idea that an extrovert needs to be around other people and an introvert wants to be alone. But other ways of increasing external stimulation include multi-tasking, playing music while doing other things, or engaging others in debate or argument.
So if extroverts want to increase external stimulation, then they should like multi-tasking, playing music at work, and being argumentative. And if introverts want to decrease external stimulation, then they should hate multi-tasking, playing music at work, and being argumentative. These statements both turn out to be true.
Now what about shyness. Shyness (or the lack of it) just refers to a person’s comfortableness with other people, particularly with strangers. A person who is shy is very uncomfortable around strangers; in the extreme case, a shy person literally cannot talk with strangers. On the other end of the scale is the gregarious person who enjoys chatting with complete strangers; in the extreme case, the gregarious person looks for people to chat with everywhere.
So now think about shyness and type. There are four combinations:
- The shy introvert
- The gregarious introvert
- The shy extrovert
- The gregarious extrovert
Obviously shyness is compatible with introversion. One way to reduce external stimulation is to not be around people. And gregariousness is compatible with extroversion. One way to increase external stimulation is to be around a lot of other people. Those folks have it easy.
The challenges are for the gregarious introvert and the shy extrovert. And yes they exist. I personally know people in both those categories.
The gregarious introvert after spending time chatting with people all day at the office will need time alone in a quiet place to recover balance. A gregarious introvert may turn to alcohol (a depressant) to reduce the level of stimulation to manageable levels. Maybe you know someone who just needs that glass of wine or martini after a day at the office. Maybe the custom in your house is for the wife to take the kids off to make them dinner, while the husband sits quietly in his chair in the dark with a drink for an hour before he can face the family. This is the gregarious introvert balancing the stimulation levels so he can feel functional.
The shy extrovert after working from home alone all day feels dead and needs stimulation to get their energy levels up to a point where they feel functional. A shy extrovert may do a lot of multitasking to reduce the boredom of lack of external stimulation, or play action packed computer games. Maybe you know someone who works from home who really comes alive when the kids get off school and they go play. Maybe the custom in your house is to take the kids out to the park to play before everyone settles down to dinner and homework. A shy extrovert may put on loud music and the TV and start dancing around the house to get energy levels up. Or propose going out to dinner. Or tease the dog, cat, or children into boisterous play. This is the shy extrovert balancing the stimulation levels so he can feel functional.
Since Agile focuses a lot on teamwork, it is useful to know what drives different people to behave the way they do. These compensating behaviors become more pronounced in periods of high stress, so if you are pushing your team to a deadline, and some people withdraw and others start picking arguments, you can be sure they are adjusting to their own needs for reduced or increased stimulation in that high stress environment. Give the people who are withdrawing a quite place to get away for a while. Send the argumentative people to a game room with lots of games, music, and TV to play in for a while. Use what we know about the brain to make it easier for people to do their best work for you.