Social chit-chat – whether at work, a party or in a classroom – is an obligatory activity that drains the energy from Steve MacPherson, a mechanical engineer and recent MBA graduate from Calgary.
“I don’t look forward to it, I don’t relish it, I’m basically counting the minutes until I can leave the conversation,” says this self-labeled introvert.
This natural aversion to small talk should sound familiar to between a third and half of the population who identify as introverts, but what does this have to do with business school and the boardroom? A lot, according to business experts.
Prospective MBAs often look at a business school’s rankings, internship programs, cost and duration when considering their academic options. But an individual’s personality type should top that list because it affects the optimal learning, understanding, processing and participation abilities each person possesses.
Contrary to the myth that introverts are shy and anti-social, Mr. MacPherson is neither and can talk at length about subjects in which he has a direct interest or has formed personal opinions. But like most introverts, he gets his energy from being alone and reflecting – unlike the extrovert who gets a certain mental vigour from social settings.
The level of social interaction with fellow classmates was a great consideration for Mr. MacPherson when he was thinking about attending the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.
The 39-year-old knew there would be group work and he’s “not a big fan.” But the worst part was group selection, he recalls of his MBA days, “because I don’t know anybody, I haven’t made any friends and I haven’t tried to make any friends in the class, so whenever group work would come up in class my first thought was, ‘Oh I hope [the professor] just picks the group.’”
“I would go to class, go to my seat, raise my hand and participate in the classroom discussions and then leave and not have exchanged one word of pleasantry to a classmate,” he says. “The only talking I did was about the lecture, during the lecture.”
Teaching and learning styles are an important consideration when applying to an MBA program, especially for the more introverted personality, as group work may not be the best way to generate creativity and innovation from these individuals. For example, the case-method teaching style, favoured by institutions such as Harvard Business School and Ivey Business School in London, Ont., requires a lot of class discussion and group participation to achieve the highest grades.
Lisa Petrilli, author of the book An Introvert’s Guide to Success in Business and Leadership, says there are ways that different personalities can excel in any business program, given the right opportunity.
“Introverts are very capable and very good at not only leading where we can excel, but working with teams and through teams and creating relationships, because we’re really good at creating relationships one-on-one,” she says. “So introverts can absolutely excel in the business world, we just approach it differently; we have a different style than extroverts.”
Business schools have been identifying and attempting to fix gender equality gaps for decades, but perhaps the most recent divide is an intrinsic bias against the introverted.
In 2010, Harvard set about establishing measures that would help with gender equality it had identified among its MBA students. This included instructional talks for female students on how to speak up in class and raise one’s hand.
But Ms. Petrilli wonders if this experiment actually spoke to a different divide: extrovert versus introvert. And it brings up questions of class participation and the quality versus quantity of a participant’s contributions. Introverts, by nature, will mull over a discussion point before contributing to a class discussion, while extroverts may jump in with their thoughts with less analysis. Neither reaction is necessarily wrong, but should be assessed on its own merits, Ms. Petrilli says. In the end, knowing how much participation is weighted may help with class selection and, overall, is good preparation.
“New ideas, innovation, all of that starts with someone having an idea, raising their hand and putting it out there. Certainly it makes sense to want to reward that behaviour, but you need to look at what specifically you’re rewarding.”
While personality should be a factor when considering an MBA program, it should not discourage introverts from joining classes ripe with class discussion because business school is about pushing beyond one’s comfort zone and learning skills a person may not naturally possess.
“It’s a low-risk way to be able to improve your capabilities in the area of communication,” says Fraser Johnson, a professor at University of Western Ontario’s Ivey, “because I can go into class and make a mistake and not communicate effectively and completely botch it, but I’m not going to lose my job. And I can get back up the next day and try it again and work on how I present my ideas.”
The way a person learns should be part of the calculus when looking at business school prospects, but it’s an environment where you’re expected to grow, adds Prof. Johnson, “and to say, ‘I’ve got to get myself pushed out of my shell.’”
Indeed, small talk is not a requirement in the classroom or the boardroom, but the doors that communication outside the lecture hall can open are not lost on Mr. MacPherson.
He says he couldn’t just call a former classmate up and say: “Hey, we were in a class together and do you know if your company is hiring?’” It’s the knowing-a-guy-that-knows-a-guy aspect that Mr. MacPherson says he hasn’t quite mastered yet.
“I have all the good friends I need, but sometimes I wish I knew more people.”
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