The Power of Introverts

We learnt about the MBTI personality test in OB, one dimension of which assesses whether a person is more extroverted or introverted. These terms are now widely used in everyday speech, having been adapted into popular culture. However, some misconceptions exist with regards to these two terms, which I would like to clarify.

(1) People are either pure extroverts or pure introverts
If a person gets a result of ENTJ, he might be inclined to think that he is an extrovert, whereas if another got a result of ISFP, she may believe that she is an introvert. However, reality is rarely black and white. To quote Carl G. Jung, the psychiatrist who popularised the terms in the early 20th century, “There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.”  Such a strong statement from the proponent himself lends weight to the fact that the terms “extrovert” and “introvert” are actually extreme ends of a scale and most people are actually different degrees of ambiverts, who exhibit both extroverted and introverted tendencies in a complex interaction between biology and situational factors

mno2(2) Extroversion refers to how outgoing a person is, whereas introversion is the same as shyness
Introversion and extroversion actually relate to the source of person’s energy; those with introverted tendencies tend to recharge by spending time alone, while those with extroverted tendencies tend to gain energy when being social with other people. Research has shown that such differences are actually wired in the brain. For extroverts, stimulation runs through a much shorter pathway where taste, touch, visual and auditory processing takes place. However for introverts, the stimulation tends to run through a longer pathway in areas associated with memory, planning and problem solving. Introverts’ tendency towards deep thought explains why they usually think carefully before speaking and tend to be more creative, while extroverts’ multi-sensory processing have made them known for their spontaneity and charm. The two orientations actually mirror the difference between right and left handedness, which also has a neurological basis.


Let us now move on to weightier subject matter. I chanced upon an excellent TED talk “The power of Introverts” by Susan Cain recently, inspiring the title of this post. Being a “self-confessed” introvert herself, she was able to bring across a few salient insights that I wish to share with all of you.

I think many of us would agree that our culture has a not-so-subtle bias towards extraversion, conditioned into children from an early age and reflected in the architecture of institutions. Classrooms and workplaces are mostly designed for extroverts, with clusters of desks and open plan offices where everyone is subject to the constant noise and gaze of each other. This is done even though research has reported that on average, introverts actually get better grades in school and move on to deliver better leadership outcomes at work! Given that a third to half of any human population tends towards introversion, that’s a pretty big group to discriminate against. So why does this cultural bias continue?

In fact, a major cultural shift occurred around the 20th century because of society’s transition from an agricultural economy to the world of big business. Instead of working alongside familiar people that they had known all their lives, many had to prove themselves to a crowd of strangers. It is under such circumstances that qualities like magnetism and charisma suddenly became hugely important. It has caused subversion from the original culture of character to a culture of personality. Such a change continues to have an indelible impact on the current generation.


Susan Cain advocates a better cultural balance, especially when it comes to creativity and productivity. After all, solitude is a crucial ingredient to creativity because it shields one from groupthink in the crucial initial stages of idea generation. A case in point would be Steve Wozniak, the inventor of the first Apple Computer. He admitted that he had invented it while sitting alone at his desk in Hewlett-Packard and would never have become an expert if he had not been too introverted to leave his house while growing up. Furthermore, examples of transformative leaders who were self-described introverts include Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi, helping to dispel the notion that great leaders must always be extroverts. In fact, introverted leaders are often superior managers because their hands-off approach helps subordinates’ ideas to surface instead of unwittingly pushing their own ideas through.

I do not advocate abolishing group work altogether – many complex problems in our world do require teamwork to solve- but I believe that what is needed is a greater awareness of the merits of introversion and more freedom for introverts to be themselves and contribute to society in their own unique way. (:
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Transcript of Susan Cain’s TED Talk –

Surfing the Silver Wave

It is known that Singapore has one of the lowest birth rates in the world at 1.2 per woman in 2011, well below the replacement level of 2.1. As our median age is projected to rise from 29 in 2011 to 47 in 2030, Singapore is set to face both a shrinking and ageing population in the future. The diagram below summarizes our situation well. The current 4.8 working-age citizens for each senior citizen aged 65 and above is predicted to fall to 2.1 by 2030, a precariously low support ratio that will put great economic strain on future generations if current employment trends are to continue.
dependency ratio

The government is already trying to increase our birth rate by introducing baby bonuses and paternity leave. However, low birth rates look set to continue in the foreseeable future due to higher education levels, living costs and other socioeconomic factors. In order to boost the low support ratio, the alternative is to look into the re-employment of seniors. Through improved nutrition and medical care, more and more senior citizens are remaining healthy well into their golden years, enabling them to continue contributing to society. However according to a study conducted by Singapore’s Alliance, only 5 – 15% of new positions are made available to older people. Why does such ‘age-discrimination’ exist?

I believe that this boils down to employers’ negative attitudes towards seniors, which are driven by assumptions that they tend to have lower energy levels, are more likely to take leave due to illness and/or have a less up-to-date skill set. This may make them less ‘cost-effective’ and therefore less attractive for profit-driven businesses. While these assumptions may be somewhat applicable, their truthfulness varies widely from individual to individual. Each age group poses its own unique set of challenges – companies routinely face the “risk” of younger female employees becoming pregnant and taking 6 months of maternity leave! Furthermore, re-education and re-training should be common to all employees in order to keep pace with the ever-changing business environment, not just older employees.

Older people actually bring on board a lifetime of knowledge and experience. They are a large subpopulation that companies which claim to value talent and diversity cannot ignore. Anecdotal evidence suggests that they tend to be more hardworking, dependable and loyal, unlike millennials who tend to be more individualistic and demanding. Older executives may bring different perspectives that counteract groupthink, as well as mentorship opportunities and a positive example of commitment and dedication for younger workers. At the same time, it allows all employees to practise working in a more diverse department, which are becoming a staple in today’s globalized world.

Indeed, the government with their formidable legal apparatus has a huge role to play in trend-setting. Already, they have made incremental changes by increasing the retirement age from 62 to 65 and soon 67. Positive propaganda posters like the one below and short videos like this one ( have also been circulated to boost companies’ awareness of the benefits of hiring seniors. Firstly, the quality and frequency of airing live testimonies should be increased for sustained impact. Furthermore, the government should also consider providing financial incentives for the re-hiring of older workers to bridge productivity gaps while companies adjust to the new policy changes. These can be considered a form of welfare that our pioneer generation deserves for their contributions towards nation-building, much like the CHAS medical subsidies. I believe that addressing key bottom line issues in this way will ensure a smoother transition and make companies more likely to give seniors a chance to perform.

Angie MOM

Even within individual companies, much more can be done to encourage a more senior-centric work culture. As long as there is fundamental respect for the contributions that older employees can make, accommodations can be made accordingly. For example, flexi-schemes could be arranged for seniors to contribute to the company according to a more comfortable part-time schedule. Or, employee yoga sessions could be organized once a month to encourage everyone to keep fit and bond over an inclusive sport that is not too taxing for older colleagues. Given that the ageing population trend is here to stay, companies should also roll with the times and factor in employees’ longer life expectancies into their remuneration packages from the start because the government’s financial incentives cannot be a long term solution.

There is a Chinese saying “家有一老,如有一宝”- having an elderly person at home is akin to possessing a treasure. It is my hope that one day, companies will be able to fully appreciate the unique benefits of having older employees in the workplace, and that the Alexandra Hospital case study that we explored in class will become not a shining exception, but the established norm.

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