Engineer Introvert Myth Explored

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I often tell people who are interested in personality types and how they can work together more efficiently that invariably the issue comes down to perspective.  I then generally follow up with the analogy that among the technical professionals who I work with and for that I am an extrovert in a sea of introverts but within the general population I am more of an introvert in a sea of extroverts.  While not 100% accurate, it provides a reasonable framework that people can easily understand.  The real truth, though, is that what most consider introversion or extroversion has little to do with how each group would act and react.  If I asked a random sampling of people how they would describe an introvert I would likely hear terms like “shy”, “withdrawn”, “quiet”, “not a people person” and probably a few others that come through their personal lens.  Extroverts would probably be described as “bubbly” or “gregarious” or even “the life of the party.”  Would these terms be right or wrong?  The answer is yes.

In our personal lives, trying to figure out how to navigate these personality types may be easier to manage.  Think about your holiday meals.  Who is the person that sneaks off to another room for a little peace and quiet after a boisterous meal with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends?  Now, is that person anti-social?  Does he or she not enjoy the company?  Probably not.  I know because that person is me.  I like to spend time with family and friends but when I hit my limit it becomes difficult to function at the same level of sociability.  And the cousin who never wants to leave and is already planning the next get-together deep into the night is the classic extrovert.  You see, the difference between introverts and extroverts has more to do with who or what you draw energy from and little to do with aversion or attraction to people.  Introverts generally draw energy from within and often being alone or in a quiet setting while extroverts draw energy from external stimulus.  As I said, generally this is a more easily navigated route in personal lives because we have greater flexibility with the situations we choose get engaged.

But what happens at work?  A much tougher situation because we likely do not get to choose the team we work with and personality types are not generally a critical factor when pulling together a project team.  As a result, we can find ourselves in challenging situations especially if you are the one among many, regardless of whether you consider yourself an introvert or extrovert.  I long ago chose a career path that routinely put me squarely in the mix of introverts, some who would be considered seriously introverted.  After all, I am an engineer and have worked with, for and managed engineers for more than 20 years.  Does this make me an expert on either engineers or introverts?  Well, I think it gives me a unique perspective or insight. 

Here are 3 lessons I have learned about engineers and introverts over the years:

Engineers and introverts are social and have senses of humor.

I know what you are thinking, “this guy has no idea what he’s talking about.”  The truth is that they are differently social and have their own strange way of looking at situations.  I recall some college friends who had watched the Letterman Show and the only thing they discussed was how fast the watermelon was falling that had been dropped from a roof.  How do we account for air resistance?  Stupid Pet Tricks and the latest movie star held no interest but that watermelon, you bet.

Engineers want to be engaged in their work.

My favorite course in my MBA program was Organizational Behavior because it was all about how groups and organizations function, or don’t.  The crux of employee engagement can be boiled down to the fact that, beyond necessities, money has little to do with what gets people to get up early, travel long distances, and work long hours.  Engagement comes from having some autonomy, opportunities for recognition, input regarding and to be treated with respect.  Sounds pretty universal to me and for engineers and introverts it may just look a little different.  Recognition might need to be at the staff meeting or one-on-one instead of at the company holiday party.  They want the same things but the wrapping will need to change.

Engineers do not like to make presentations.

Wrong!  For anyone who knows an engineer you will be able to attest to the fact that engineers love to talk about their projects.  They may describe them in a way that only another physicist can understand but once you get them talking it’s hard to get them to stop.  Their presentations to a general audience may need some help to bring them down to “human” level but make no mistake about the willingness to speak in public.  Just don’t expect them to stick around too long afterwards – remember, energy from within not the outside.

So as you begin to put together your next project team, keep the composition in mind with respect to introverts and extroverts.  We can all coexist and with some forethought and planning there is no reason you can’t develop a high functioning, effective and efficient team complete with introverts and extroverts, even a centrovert like me.