3 Unorthodox Ways to Engage Introverted Students

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We live in a commercially-driven world that prizes the extrovert. The ‘culture of personality’, in which the individual must take responsibility for creating – and selling – their personality, took root in North America in around 1910, around the time Dale Carnegie emerged (actually, Dales’ name was spelled ‘Carnagey’. He later changed the spelling of his name to evoke Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist).

Today is no different. Global influencers and ‘gurus’ from Seth Godin to Tony Robins encourage their followers to ‘unleash the power’, creating a cult status around extroversion, self-branding and speaking up.

Nowhere in the academic world is extroversion more prized than in Harvard Business School, where the lecture auditorium can be likened to a gladiatorial arena. There is a confident nonchalance with which HBS students lounge in the Spangler Centre. They are a good looking, immaculately turned out, well-spoken bunch. It is no wonder HBS favours extroversion in their student body; they are busy graduating the next generation of world leaders. Presidents. CEOs. New York City Mayors. And legions of executives: 20% of the top three executives in Fortune 500 companies are Harvard graduates.

Time and time again, researchers have proved that our societal bias towards extroverted leaders is leading us astray. Provided with the right environment, introverted leaders consistently outperform their extroverted peers, particularly as leaders and managers of proactive (read: extroverted) employees. You will have seen this in the classroom: volume is not correlated with intelligence. They who shout loudest are not always the smartest. And those who do not speak up at all often have much to contribute.

If extroverted students are to be managed, then it follows that introverted students are to be engaged. The question is how? How can we, as professors, academic professionals and teachers, create an environment in which both introverted and extroverted students can thrive?

We’ve reviewed research and distilled three strategies for engaging and challenging the introverted student.

1. Prize (and grade) individuality

‘Brainstorming’ is the brainchild of Alex Osborn, the famous Maddison Avenue man who invented the term and concept in 1938. His goal was to encourage creative teams to generate more ideas. He created the idea of Brainstorming, and set the 4 basic principles by which it would be successful:

            1. Don’t be judgemental.

            2. Be freewheeling (the wilder the idea, the better).

            3. Go for quantity.

            4. Build on the ideas of others.

Unfortunately, Brainstorming is not what it seems. Primarily because the human drivers of social interaction are more powerful than rule number 4: “don’t be judgemental”. Irrespective of how ‘non-judgemental’ a group may seem, our fear of social rejection overpowers any attempt to make groupthink non-judgemental. Secondarily, quantity does not equal quality.

Many introverts do not engage in groupthink. They prefer to develop ideas in solitude. Steve Wozniack, one of the more well-known introverts of our time, says;

“I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. […] Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own.”

-Steve Wozniack

In an academic environment that prizes group work above all, it is imperative that you give your students the opportunity to contribute to their grade through individual study, and individual output. Whether it’s producing a final report, reflecting on the group process through an individual essay, preparing for individual exams – give your students a break from groupthink. It will push the extroverts out of their comfort zone (which is no bad thing), and create an environment for introverts to outperform.

2. Play God in team making.

This is an interesting opportunity to conduct research of your own. Wharton Management professor Adam Grant, alongside colleagues Francesca Gino of HBS and David Hofman of Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC analysed data from one of the largest pizza chains in the US. They discovered that proactive employees are a critical predictor of the success of introverted leaders. When introverted leaders work with employees who are proactive, their stores outperform those of their extroverted colleagues by 14%. 

A second study by Grant et. al. grouped students into teams, assigned a team leader (either introverted or extroverted) and gave the teams the task of folding as many t-shirts as possible in 10 minutes. The results revealed that introverted leaders were 20% more likely to follow helpful suggestions made by their team members than their extraverted counterparts, leading to 24% better results (more t-shirts folded) than those teams led by an introvert.

What does this mean for the class room environment? It is not so dissimilar to the corporate world. Observe your students and pick out the quiet ones. As a professor, you have the option to allocate student teams. Use this opportunity to enable introverts to thrive. Put the introvert at the helm of a team that contains at least one proactive (read: extroverted) team member. Then sit back and watch the dynamic unfold. And be warned; this can go either way.

3. Give your students the gift of being self-aware.

The quest for self-knowledge and self-awareness is a noble one. Nudge your students down this path by encouraging greater self-discovery. The Briggs Meyers-based test, 16 Personalities, is a free online questionnaire that results in a startingly accurate personality profile. Spend classroom time encouraging students to take the test (maybe allow students to take it in their own time, privately – the introverts among them will thank you).

The results include an assessment of introversion vs. extroversion. Encourage open discussion with other students, encourage the sharing of results, and an open dialogue of how personality effects each student as they navigate the complexities and pitfalls of group work. The results are fascinating, and will contribute to a highly engaged, self-reflective student body playing to their strengths and working with their weaknesses. Not a bad start for a future leader…

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