Nursing Needs All Hands on Deck, Including the Quiet Leadership of Introverts

Mar 2, 2012, 1:00 PM, Posted by

By Jennifer Doering, PhD, RN, Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee College of Nursing and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholar


The first time I took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator Instrument (MBTII) I was 18 and just starting the Air Force ROTC. It seemed rather obvious to my young mind there was a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to answer the questions. I’ll admit that I outright lied and selected answers that suggested I was bold, aggressive and outspoken, thinking I knew the type of personality the military wanted officers to possess. However, even with such effort to appear extraverted, I only came out in the middle of the Introvert-Extravert (I-E) spectrum.

Fast forward 15 years. I am again sitting down to take the MBTII, this time as a new Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar. Out of curiosity more than anything, I decide to be as honest as possible. It’s no surprise, then, to discover I am about as introverted as it gets. Threaded through my cohort’s week together at Outward Bound is the running joke that awareness of our I-E type allows the group’s extraverts to know better than to keep asking, ‘What’s wrong?’ when we introverts get grumpy. The MBTII exercise tells them our grumpiness means we need some alone time to ‘re-charge our batteries,’ but don’t possess the straightforwardness to simply say so.

Over the next three years, RWJF provided us with incredible leadership training. We heard words of advice, wisdom and passion from the premier leaders of our discipline and of health care. These leaders took huge risks at great personal cost and sacrifice to push forward the edge of what was possible for the betterment of nursing and humanity. They made no apology for breaking the rules in order to re-invent those rules in their image. It was a gift to learn from such bold leaders.

But as I sat through each training session, one nagging question loomed in the back of my mind: How could I harness the leadership potential RWJF saw in me if I was most happy and energized when working alone?

My answer recently came from a book just released by Susan Cain titled, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Cain weaves together the development of extraversion as an American value with research linking neuroscience, psychology and leadership to argue that having an introverted nature needs no apology. Many world leaders were or are introverts, including Albert Einstein, Warren Buffett, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Ghandi. In fact, says Cain, introverts are the solution to many of society’s complex problems. Little did I know that one-third to one-half of all Americans tend to be introverted, so if you aren’t an introvert yourself, Cain states, “…you are surely raising, managing, married to, or coupled with one.”

Introverted leadership is no longer a contradiction of terms. Cain’s work suggests it is time to think beyond the binaries of ‘either-or’ to ‘both-and.’ In other words, I can be both true to my introverted nature and be an effective leader. As Angela McBride discusses in her book, The Growth and Development of Nurse Leaders, we now have the ability to construct paths, positions, opportunities, workplaces and home environments that suit our true nature. Becoming aware of your person-environment fit at your workplace is important so you can focus on your unique contribution to nursing rather than dwelling on your perceived limitations. With the Future of Nursing Institute of Medicine report recently released, never has it been more important to consider how to modify your person-environment fit to enable you to realize your unique contribution to the discipline. Regardless of your position on the I-E spectrum, nursing needs all hands on deck.

Constructing a workplace that fits your introverted nature can energize you and maximize your productivity. Success begets success, and this positive cycle can create more opportunities for making a difference in nursing and health care. How does one begin to do this? Below are some suggestions from Cain’s book.

Suggestions to Maximize the Potential of Introverts

  • Recognize that nothing is ‘wrong’ with you. You simply do things differently and have capacities and abilities that others may not recognize. You are more concerned with doing the work and solving the problems than making sure people know that you are doing the work and solving the problems.
  • Be selective about which leadership opportunities you accept. Seek out opportunities that allow you to engage deeply and meaningfully with your work.
  • While every job has unpleasant tasks, notice when you lose track of time when working on a project. There is something about that project that harnesses your strengths. Introverts tend to have, “…the power of persistence, the tenacity to solve complex problems, and the clear-sightedness to avoid pitfalls that trip others up,” Cain says. Increasing your awareness of what type of work or projects you get ‘lost’ in can help you select paths that harness those strengths.
  • Carve out what Cain calls ‘restorative niches’ in your daily work and home environments. Whether these niches are momentary retreats such as a couple of breaths between phone calls, or a room to which you can close the door, niches help replenish your energy throughout the day.
  • Stop multi-tasking. Many introverts feel scattered and less productive when multi-tasking. Research has shown the human brain has limited capacity to be productive when multi-tasking. If multi-tasking makes you feel like you aren’t getting work done, then stop. Deliberately choose to focus on one activity until you either finish it or are ready to change to the next activity. You’ll give each activity your full focus and engagement, and you’ll feel better at the end of the day.
  • At social events, locate yourself at the edges of the gathering rather than in the center. Focus more on having 1-on-1 interactions with a few people than on mingling and small talk (which can be uncomfortable for Introverts) with many people. Contrary to popular belief, introverts are not anti-social. They simply prefer engaging in more intimate and deeper conversation. Engaging deeply with fewer people can be just as effective a leadership strategy as playing the crowd.
  • Find your ‘optimal level of arousal,’ or the place and amount of incoming information that keeps you from being either over-stimulated or under-stimulated. For example, while I like working alone, I focus best with the buzz of a coffee shop around me or music piping through my headphones. Other people like a totally quiet space. Figure out what is right for you for the task at hand.
  • Recognize that there are times when you must turn into a ‘Performer’ where you pretend to be an extravert in order to push your work or leadership efforts forward. Many introverts do this quite effectively (e.g., think of the engaging classroom professor who is a recluse when not on campus). Performing works great provided you balance your performing with the restoration you need to re-charge your batteries.
  • One of my personal recommendations is to schedule meetings with yourself to secure the blocks of uninterrupted time you need to focus deeply on your work. Most people who ask if you are available at 10 am on Thursday won’t press further if you simply say, “No, I have a meeting.”
  • Angela McBride writes that leadership is less about having the “right stuff’ and more about getting the right stuff out of people. Cain relays compelling research about how extraverted followers may perform better under introverted leaders, because such leaders give extraverts the space to be heard, which encourages follower productivity and creativity. Whether you identify more as an introvert or an extravert, consider how you react as a leader and as a follower in different situations.

If you identify as an introvert, you probably already do many of these things, maybe without even realizing it. For example, you may already have ‘restorative niches’ in your day or your workplace. The office wall in front of my computer is covered in colorful pictures my daughter made. Between tasks I find myself taking a deep breath and smiling. Without realizing it, I had created a restorative niche for myself. If you are an extravert reading this, your restorative niches probably involve connecting with people down the hall or in the lounge or cafeteria. Expand your awareness of the person-environment fit by starting to recognize the restorative niches your introverted colleagues create and encourage such behaviors, since they are likely to promote that person’s productivity.

In a society that places great value on teamwork and bold, outspoken leadership, psychology and neuroscience suggest that introversion is no longer a personality anomaly to be suppressed. A great many introverted leaders are quietly solving the complex problems we face in nursing and health care. The challenge to all of us, whichever way our personality swings, is to lead the change while embracing our natures. To do this will encourage others to do the same, thereby realizing the leadership potential in all of us to better the human condition.

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Crown Publishers.

McBride, A. B. (2011). The Growth and Development of Nurse Leaders. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.