If you’re not Part of the Solution - an Introvert’s Perspective on the Shift to Social Working Practices
Following my posts about the behaviours needed to create and maintain effective Learning Communities and Communities of Practice, this post from Steve Gardener gives an illuminating perspective on the battle that introverts constantly fight to be able to contribute to communities in the fullest way. Thanks Steve for your insight and honesty.
Posted on 21 Jul, 2011 by Stephen Gardener
As Henry J. Tillman said, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the precipitate”. Geeky chemistry humour aside, there is an analogy to be had here. For any system, there always seems to be some fallout. A group that gets left by the wayside. If our goal is to set up a system or environment for learning or working together, some will cope very well, and others will get left behind. This is not due to their lack of intelligence, talent or ability, but simply because we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and particular systems will tend to favour certain strengths, and under-appreciate others.
Introversion is one of those strengths that tends to get forgotten about. My post here today is about this group, the one to which I feel I belong.To have a tendency towards introversion is almost a given for a software developer. But I have recently moved from my pleasantly lonely (I prefer the Norwegian word ‘ensom’ here, having less negative connotations, being more of an actively chosen state than the English word ‘lonely’) chair in front of my computer, into the very social world of business. My wife Ollie, coming from a Learning and Development strategy background, has always thrived working with others. When we started our own business last year, I was the programmer, but necessity has meant my moving more and more into the business and people side of things.
Noddlepod and the new social learning
We decided to build a tool to encourage the informal side of learning in learning networks. With the help and advice of many people in the industry, it evolved into Noddlepod, a tool for parallel working and learning. The idea comes from the fact that people rarely work or learn in isolation, but tend to be part of a bigger picture. That bigger picture might be a specific process that you and others are working through - it might be the class you are taking at university, or the training programme you are working through at work. It could be a project your team is working on, or even your department in relation to others. Innovation, discovery and learning tend to arise at the intersection between different disciplines, interests and ideas. Parallel working brings these different disciplines, interests and ideas together.
The more I have worked on developing our application, the more I have come to learn about and understand the ideas behind employee/student engagement and the advantages of more social and informal approaches to work and learning. Much of what we promote focuses on the idea that ‘the network is the future’. Traditional hierarchical approaches to learning and working just aren’t suited to many of today's businesses and universities. Information changes too quickly. Hierarchies slow down the decision making process, and by only allowing a small number of individuals the final say, they also greatly restrict the outcomes.
If people can be brought together in their work and learning, seemingly unrelated areas of expertise could trigger an explosion of learning and discovery. It works equally well looking at it from the other angle - the varied backgrounds and points of view of the individuals in the network make it much more likely that problems are spotted before they become issues.
So how does this shift to more social work practices affect someone like me, who is much more comfortable and productive working quietly alone? Am I to be the precipitate of the new system that I am working so hard to promote?
I see three issues that might cause some people difficulties (and not only the introverted among us).
Communication - how we can encourage the quieter amongst us to work comfortably and to contribute in a more social environment?
There are differences between formal and informal approaches, and people have a preference towards one or the other.
In order to fully benefit from this approach, we all have to be more comfortable sharing unfinished ideas.
Encouraging communication, is possibly the easiest to solve. I find am better at communication when I have time to formulate what I want to say. The current trend towards online communication is perfect for this - forums, blogs and other social media allow the more introverted among us to ‘lurk’, getting a feel for the network and the people in it before contributing. In addition, they give the individual time to consider how they might want to word their contribution. Chances are there will still be a strong extrovert bias, but the playing field is definitely levelled. Of course, our ‘precipitates’ now are those that are not comfortable with computers, those who would rather just pick up the phone or chat face to face. How we might balance the technical and the human approach to communication will have to be discussed in another post. Let’s stick with the introverts for now.
Formal vs. Informal
The idea behind more informal approaches to work and learning is to encourage a more relaxed environment where people feel more able to contribute, resulting from the tempering of bureaucracy and a shift from rigid, hierarchical leadership structures to a flatter, more democratic approach. Informal approaches often involve removing structure and putting more of a focus on social interaction. This can cause minor panic attacks for the more retiring of us! Many introverts struggle with open-ended social activities. However, we don’t need to, and in fact we should strive not to abandon all structure in our quest for the informal.
It’s all about balance - too much structure restricts, but not enough leaves people floating aimlessly, with no direction. We need clarity around our roles and our tasks, and we need to understand where we fit in to the overall scheme of things. But we also need freedom - freedom to step outside of and away from our roles and tasks. We need opportunities to interact with others sharing those same freedoms.
This balance suits the introvert well. Working with others can provide a welcome opportunity for social interaction that might not come very often, or very easily, to the introvert. Doing so in a relaxed and positive environment, with enough structure that people are not feeling uncomfortable or directionless, but at the same time encouraging social exchange, I suspect would suit most people well, not just the introverted.
Making a fool of yourself
To get the most benefits from social learning in a network, the participants need to be comfortable sharing unfinished ideas and making mistakes in front of each other. I think this is the biggest hurdle, and not just for the quieter among us.
As Ollie discussed in arecent post, most of us seem to be genetically programmed to try to avoid making fools of ourselves in public. But while I’m sure genetics are involved, culture also plays a big part in this. Of course, we all want to make a good impression and only show our good side, and many of us are afraid of being ridiculed or put down for saying something daft. So how do we encourage people to share not only their polished, finished end product, but also the process they went through, the mistakes they made and the dead ends they came to? (seeOllie’s postfor more about why we should be encouraging this).
It’s all about culture. Others need to be seen to be able to voice their opinions and thoughts without repercussions. Encourage those that are comfortable to do so to contribute and share thoughts and ideas, regardless of the state of completion, or the correctness of their contribution. It doesn’t matter if it’s only a handful of people initially. The more people see others openly exploring and experimenting, and (perhaps more importantly) the more people see the community responding positively to those contributions, the more likely they are to contribute themselves. It is bound to take some time, but then most worthwhile things do.
Introverts and the new social workplace
I was worried when I started writing this post that it would be all too easy to come to the conclusion that this is simply the way of the world - that it is the people who thrive in social situations, people who are unintimidated by others who will dominate, when even the most intelligent and mindful, introverted individual struggles to make themselves heard above the often loudly spoken opinions of the extrovert.
However, at least in the field of parallel working and learning, this certainly doesn’t have to be the case. We can appreciate diversity in all its forms, actively listening to what everyone has to contribute, even if (maybe especially if) they don’t seem to have anything to contribute. It seems we all have an inate need to understand and to be understood. The hard part is actually trying to understand other people and what our ideas might mean for them, when they are probably living in very different mental worlds to our own.
New opportunities for communication mean that the more introverted among us have a fresh opportunity to contribute and be heard, and hopefully to be listened to. With understanding and a bit of planning by the people responsible for our networks, as well as caring attitudes from those within them, we can produce richer, more productive and more representative communities.