Agile Introverts, an Oxymoron?

by Chris Edwards

Over the past two years, I’ve been wrestling with a paradox in our industry: There is a large percentage of introverts in the programming world, yet we increasingly ask people to stop working as individuals and work much more collaboratively.

I’m an idealist when it comes to agile principles and practices. I believe strongly in the value of collaboration. I believe it allows teams to do great things.

I will not try to make a case here for the value of collaboration. Many others have done a much better job of that. What I will attempt to explore here is the conflict between the value of collaboration and the unique needs of introverts.

Overcoming the Extrovert Ideal

Two years ago I joined an agile team that was comprised of a high percentage of self-identifying introverts. The following book was recommended to me by several members of this team: “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, by Susan Cain.

Inside the cover is a bright red page with white font. “The Manifesto for Introverts”. I could feel the hair on my arms raise. I identify as an extrovert and this was uncomfortable territory for me.

The first part of the book, titled “The Extrovert Ideal”, paints a world full of empty talk by shallow, unintelligent extroverts. That’s how I read it anyway.

The book goes into detail on a number of studies and anecdotes demonstrating the value of quiet thinking and berating our society’s obsession with collaboration. Individually, they are easy to discount as one-off examples, but as a whole, they paint a picture of a culture that has an obsession with personality and has little time for deep thought.

Some examples of the introvert/extrovert comparison:

  • Extroverts are more prone to risky reward-seeking behaviour
  • Introverts work more slowly and deliberately
  • Extroverts tend to be assertive, dominant, and comfortable with conflict
  • Introverts prefer deep-interesting conversations
  • Extroverts have many superficial friendships
  • Introverts will have a small number of meaningful relationships

The most upsetting part to me may have been the relentless use of science to back up her points (facts and reason are my Kryptonite). In particular, referencing the famous “Coding War Games” study by Timothy Lister and Tom DeMarco, which showed that “Open-offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory.”

Amplifying this is neuroscience showing that many introverts fall into the category of “high-reactive”, which means they have a stronger response in their amygdala and limbic system (emotional centers of the brain) to the same stimuli as extroverts. It makes sense that introverts would find noisy office environments harder to work in. When under stress, people actually become dumber.

By the time I finished the first part of the book I was ready to put it away. I became increasingly angry and defensive as I rejected this image of extroversion. I don’t see myself as a shallow-minded individual and nor are my many extroverted friends. In my opinion, this book was being used as an excuse for people to avoid working with others.

This is the second time I’ve had a reaction like this to a book. Spoiler: If you’re getting angry at a book you’re reading, you’re about to learn something. I’m very happy I pressed forward.

A Deeper Exploration of Introversion

I’ll be honest, the rest of the book was extremely educational. The author goes through several studies exploring the various dimensions of introversion and demonstrates that it is a very complex topic. To say you’re an Introvert or Extrovert tells you surprisingly little about your personality.

For example, being an Introvert could mean:

  • Energy source — You get more energy from being alone than being with people
  • You’re shy —Essentially social anxiety
  • Lower “reward-sensitivity” — Less likely to be motivated by seeking rewards and more likely to be able to delay gratification
  • You’re “high-reactive” — meaning neurologically more sensitive to your environment

I found the last point to be particularly fascinating, especially a study done by Hans Eysenck showing that people will self-calibrate the level of stimulation they need from their environment. Humans have an optimal level of arousal to operate at and this will tend to be lower for introverts.

This single study gave me pause. Up until this point, I was skeptical of labeling people as introverts and distrustful that people were using this label as an excuse to avoid working with others. Instead, the data showed that I needed to be more sensitive to the differences in people and their different needs.

My Journey of Self-Discovery

As a baseline, my MBTI score puts me firmly in the middle on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. Here’s my self-evaluation of the different dimensions revealed above:

  • Energy sourceIn the middle. I get energized from working with people, but I often feel exhausted at the end of a day of talking.
  • ShynessIn the middle. You’ll probably find me in the corner at a party talking to one or two people. I also have a gregarious and energetic personality.
  • Reward-sensitivityI’m firmly on the extrovert end of this spectrum. One of the main reasons I do public speaking is because of the adrenaline rush I feel after the fact.
  • SensitivityI consider myself firmly on the “high-reactive” end of this spectrum. I’m prone to anxiety around new people and will quickly avoid conflict.

By the end of the book, I came to one conclusion regarding my own personality: It’s a lot more complicated than I’d originally thought. I have many extroverted AND introverted qualities.

The one description I strongly identified with was “Pseudo-extrovert”: Introverted people who have learned to mimic the behaviours expected by society and eventually adopted them as their own personality traits.

The Agile Introvert

At Agile 2015 I attended an experience report by Jason Kerney from Hunter Industries, famous for pioneering Mob Programming. When teams work, they all work at the same computer at the same time.

The concept of Mob Programming was highly enticing to me, but I assumed it must be awful for introverts. I asked Jason how introverts at Hunter cope with Mob Programming, and he told me their introverts insist they could never go back to anything other than mobbing.

Aaron Griffith, one of the introverts at Hunter, wrote an experience report the following year on this exact topic. The following are some of the key takeaways I had from his paper:

  • Mobbing isn’t easy as an introvert. It is energy draining and you need time to recharge. It isn’t without its costs.
  • Relationships are important. By working closely with people you get to know them personally. Strong bonds are important to introverts.
  • Safety is key. Something I remember from Jason’s talk was their strong focus on “kindness”. If you know people will treat you well, working with others isn’t as scary.

I’ve since come to learn that Hunter Industries isn’t unique in this regard. Richard Sheridan, author of Joy Inc., gave a talk at Agile India 2016 describing Menlo Innovations, a highly collaborative workplace. Pair programming is mandatory. They work in a noisy open floor-plan. Earbuds are banned.

Once again, my impression was that introverts must hate this workplace, I made sure to ask Rich this question and he told me something very interesting: their workplace is comprised almost entirely of introverts.

How can this be true? Two extremely collaborative workplaces, both with introverts thriving. I had to understand this better.

I had a Skype call with four Menlonians to see if I could understand their circumstance better. Here are some of the key things I heard:

  • They speak with a fondness for each other. They exude what I would only call affection for their fellow employees.
  • They frequently refer to “cultural expectations”, specifical things like being kind to each other, listening to each other, helping each other out.
  • They actively filter out what they refer to as “Steamrollers”: people who talk over each other. This starts right from their collaborative interview process.
  • They talked a lot about the importance of relationships and getting to know each other.
  • They acknowledged that they do get pulled outside of their comfort zone, but this helps them grow. It is also much easier to do when you have the safety and support of those around you.

The Importance of Safety

An article circulated around the internet last year about a study done by Google to determine what the qualities were of its top teams. The top result: Psychological Safety.

Amy Edmonson defines this as ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

I believe this is the key ingredient that allows introverts to thrive at both Hunter and Menlo. If the research shown in “Quiet” is true about the neuroscience of collaboration on introverts, then I believe teams with high psychological safety can counter this effect.

The stronger our relationships, the more empathy people show us, the less likely we are to be judged for our ideas, and the more likely we are to be forgiven for mistakes, then the safer we feel. The blood can move back into our prefrontal cortex and we can start focusing on the challenging intellectual problems in front of us.

I believe this is important for everyone but more important for introverts. The neuroscience in “Quiet” is clear: Introverts have a stronger physiological response to the same stimulus when compared to extroverts. By focusing on psychological safety, I believe we can create collaborative work environments where everyone can thrive.

A Final Note on Identity

One thing I’ve discovered is this topic can become a heated one. “Introvert” and “Extrovert” are labels we give that define how we see ourselves. Once identity comes into the conversation, opinions are more easily perceived as judgement. We must keep this in mind when approaching this topic.

Since reading it the first time, I’ve come to understand that “Quiet” was not intended for me. It was written for members of society that have been told their whole lives that they aren’t good enough. They’re told that their skill set isn’t valued, and that to be successful they have to change. “Quiet” tells them that there is nothing wrong with who they are. They are useful. They can thrive. They shouldn’t be ashamed of who they are.

With this thought, I want to close by saying that although I believe strongly in collaborative work environments, I don’t believe it is ideal for every person. It is very important that we have empathy for people and let them know that it is not our goal to change who they are.

I will be giving a talk on this subject at Agile India 2017 in Bangalore and I will hopefully have my talk accepted at Agile 2017 in Orlando.

If you have any thoughts on this topic please leave comments below.

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Agile philosophers, programmers, and fathers. Musings on leadership, lean product management and technology.

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