Diversity can also be about personality types

During my final year in university, I was busy with job applications and, if I was lucky enough, job interviews. Towards the end of my interview at a reputable financial services company, I was asked what my hobbies were. My reply was something along the lines of reading, writing and nail art. The interviewer laughed and said ‘When I ask you for your hobbies, I’m looking for examples of team activities. Let’s try that again.’

And then I had to rattle off a list of things that were far from being my hobbies but were simply team activities that I had participated. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I don’t feel bitter about being rejected (having gotten rejected by tons of other companies in the process), but out of all my interviews, that scene has remain etched in my mind. In just a few seconds, I was made to feel foolish, inadequate and nervous without it even being my fault or mistake. What’s more, I was basically asked to lie on the spot. Why would anyone ask for your hobbies, expecting them to be group activities? That immediately shows that such an employer is specifically looking for extroverted traits, while thinking that introverts are unable to be effective team-players.

Are companies looking for the right people or are they simply looking for people who give the right answers? Many times, I definitely feel like it’s the latter. And that the right answers are those that tend to reflect extroverted characteristics.

It’s curious that such incidents would take place because introverts are no less capable of being as intelligent, as inspiring and as influential, both as team members and leaders, as how the world has been conditioned to view extroverts. All it takes is a broader mind and the awareness that different personalities function differently, with no one personality being worse than the other.

Fast forward to me being fully employed, and the idea that introversion is a sin has been slapped in my face multiple times. In a previous workplace, the quality of my work was good (and I had been told as such) and I had made a few good friends there too. But my seniors and supervisors weren’t privy to my social life and so thought it was their responsibility to comment on my apparent unfriendliness (which is what they claimed to see the few times they walked past my desk and which, of course, couldn’t in any way actually be shyness or me trying to furiously push out work for a looming deadline) in my performance review. It was a personal attack and it was definitely uncalled for. Besides, what they couldn’t see was that I was shy and increasingly uncomfortable in an highly extroverted office environment that clashed horribly with my own introverted personality.

In another incident, two seniors (who barely knew me as a person) aggressively attempted to persuade me that I was an individualistic person when I mentioned that I felt more comfortable in a collectivistic environment (and that could really be due to my Indian background). “Come on, Simran. You’re more of an individual than any of us here.” All because they saw that I preferred to plug in my earphones when I had lots of work to get done. And me, being me, I was too shocked to even shoot a comeback to that. Instead, I just pressed my lips together tightly and shook my head in silent denial.

Number one: Being an individual and being individualistic are two completely different things.

Number two: Nobody has the right to attempt to define who you are and try to school you on it.

Never mind that I was always the one organising team outings, that I huddled the group together, that I loved being around the colleagues in my pod.

It’s when people try to place others into boxes or label them without their permission or without getting to know them better that such uncomfortable situations arise in workplaces. Why can’t someone have both introverted and extroverted traits? Why can’t people try to find a comfortable environment for themselves within their workplaces? Not everyone enjoys working in an area where people are yelling out to one another as their excuse of a discussion. Similarly, not everyone likes working in silence. Why can’t people decide to have one-on-one lunches or tea-breaks instead of going out with a larger group of colleagues? Why is that supposed to say something negative about the individual? Policies, rules and regulations (whether said or unsaid) tend to favour either one or the other type of personality and that results in exclusion.

Being an introvert is not wrong, just like how being an extrovert isn’t ‘the right thing’. I really do feel that the world has to do more to ensure that both ends of the spectrum are accepted equally. While we typically tend to think of gender, race or religion in topics around diversity, we cannot ignore personality types. If a workplace really preached diversity then they would also do more to ensure everyone felt comfortable — regardless of caste, creed, colour and personality.

Three years ago, I was lucky enough to be selected to be a part of an international management trainee programme. The best part about that is that I wasn’t selected despite my personality; I was selected because of my personality. I had never felt more comfortable being my unadulterated self during an interview process. Not once did I have to think about whether I was giving the ‘right’ answers. Everything I said just flowed seamlessly, and I even peppered some of my answers with my incredibly random sense of humour — which, to my relief, was met warmly. But I was still so sure I wouldn’t get the job. There were other candidates with such amazing presence and such confident and gregarious personalities, while I initially sat in a corner of the room feeling the bubble of panic in my chest rise up. However, many of the candidates who I was confident would get selected eventually didn’t. It took me by surprise because I felt that, based on my own experiences, those were the types of candidates companies preferred to employ — or perhaps, they managed to grab recruiters’ attention while quieter ones faded into the background.

Looking at the various people who ended up being selected for the programme, I really do appreciate the fact that the interviewers decided to look past the surface and delved deeper into the different personalities at hand to understand what each individual could bring to the table. And this is something that more organisations should really engage in. A little more diversity never really harmed anyone. Homogeneity is boring.