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INTROVERTS and BIG BUSINESS
by Frank Gregorsky (INTJ)

 

Whatever youíve been told introvert means is probably in error. Introversion has little to do with "shyness," and even less to do with mental illness or accumulated rage. We introverts prefer to work alone, or with trustworthy individuals, or in small groups where the purpose is plain. This essay contends that big companies are the worst place to look for those factors. It begins a series -- part caustic commentary, part productive coaching -- aimed at introverts who are 45 or younger. For expert testimony on large organizations, I will call on Jack Welch, Carl Jung and Edward T. Hall. This essay also puts the U.S. housing bubble, during this summer of 2005, in a radical new light. The ongoing alarmism conceals a noble purpose: Saving fellow introverts from years of agony, waste and oblivion...


The world of big business favors extroverted sensors. They fit the mainstream model of "natural leader." They think well of Donald Trump, never mind the two bankruptcy filings. They show up on CNBC as younger and often shameless pitchmen. Able to process group dynamics instantly, they thrive at corporate retreats. Back at the main office, they drag visiting delegations to TGIF for "happy hour." They derive energy from the wheel and deal. They swap business stories on planes. They connect with them.

This is the arena where promotions are won, and souls are lost. The more competitive the industry, the more shark-like the work culture. Extroverted sensors own this territory, and the territory comes to own them. Never forget how sprawling that territory is, despite 15 years of corporate downsizing. The terrain dictates what grows and what withers.

Departments and Divisions, Not Clients or Collaborators

What do I mean by "big business"? What you assume the term means, and then some. Not just IBM, Boeing and Cisco Systems, but also the consumer-products giants, companies exporting durable goods, Target and Wal-Mart, most supermarket chains, the defense contractors mega and micro, and much of the national government (outside of the field offices, where the situation can become hospitable, or at least navigable).

In these workplaces, people take their daily cues more from each other, and especially their immediate superior, than from either the customers or an individual code of ethics. A manual tells them what to do in most situations, with every questionable policy being the result of a past mess. In a good-sized building with various departments, the interactions proliferate, while the sincerity and reliability of those interactions decline. Only a few relationships count -- and the large-company sensor is constantly trying to guess which ones. No problem, they have plenty of energy for this game (unlike the typical introvert, who seeks to burrow into the work as opposed to juggling the human links).

"Big business" also includes work arenas you had not thought of. Isnít a large real-estate firm, with 250 agents scattered over several buildings in a single state, a big business? Though people are driving to and fro, and the main building is just two stories tall, its culture will be top-down and uniform.

Same for a school district like Los Angeles or Detroit. You wonder where half your tax dollars go from those EDU bond referenda? Not to teachers or classrooms or textbooks. UCLA professor William Ouchiís remarkable 2003 book Making Schools Work concludes that schools thrive when they function like independent businesses -- and the reason they canít is because of the "central office bureaucracy," or what the local media call "the district."

Earlier this year, I reviewed Ouchiís book for the Congressional Institute -- see www.CongInst.org/reviews/SchoolsWork.html. Hereís a quote -- not from the review, but from the book. The author is coaching parents on how to become effective local reform activists:

"Ask your principal how much money he has in his budget this year. We did this at every school we visited. In the top-down, old-fashioned districts, more than 90% of the principals gave us a puzzled look in response... Most principals around the nation donít care what their budget is because they arenít allowed to decide how to spend it. Most of the control lies in the central office, which [wields that control by sending] the schools teachers, aides, paraprofessionals, nurses, custodians, guards, and so on. The central office [does] the thinking for the principal..."

In the sense that 90% of the K-12 dollars spent in each state do not come from the federal government, your public school system is regional or local. Yet the "system" still chokes the individual schools -- and thereby becomes a caricature of big business. (Or perhaps worse, in that many states lack the alternative K-12 systems that offer choices to parents. At least Coke drinkers can switch to Pepsi, or Red Bull, or Gatorade...)

In contrast to what Ouchi describes, a tightly knit staff at a Bank of America branch might end up functioning like a small enterprise; it depends on the branch manager, and how much autonomy she gets from headquarters. When the business is even more physically spread out -- a great example is package-delivery -- top management quickly sees that "command and control" is inferior to staff autonomy within broad parameters.

Places like the above, despite their centralized systems and national presence, are places where introverts have a reasonable shot. Decent relationships thrive with fewer of the games necessitated by having to "look back at, or look up to" company headquarters. Customers are walking into and out of the store; they matter more than whoever's vice-president.

Generally, though, professional security and workplace autonomy are opposites. The nature of the tension is even more specific for introverts. How so? Because (1) the introvert requires a few reliable relationships, while (2) the larger the work arena, the more chaotic all relationships tend to be.

The Rule of Twelve

Carrying out a commitment to a large company is risky for most introverts. The risk is that you will get stuck, ignored, run over. If you need an established entityís security and stability, seek out areas where even the extroverted sensors -- as opposed to taking cues from each other -- are hip-deep in satisfying customers. Pick a storefront, or field office, where the autonomy is palpable and the numbers are contained.

Thirty years ago, in Beyond Culture, Edward T. Hall gave voice to something Iíve seen play out over and over again: "Research with business groups, athletic teams, and even armies around the world has revealed there is an ideal size for a working group. The ideal size is between eight and 12 individuals. This is natural, because man evolved as a primate while living in small groups..."

With that size work group, itís not easy to let schisms fester: Jane might be difficult, but you will need something from her next week. And, if one person lacks integrity or is incompetent, the group is large enough to remove the offender, but not so large that that he or she can get securely lost and draw income for years on end.

Hall continues: "Eight to 12 persons can know each other well enough to maximize their talents. In groups beyond this size, the possible combinations of communication between individuals get too complex to handle; people are lumped into categories and begin the process of ceasing to exist as individuals. Tasks than canít be handled by a group of eight to 12 are probably too complex and should be broken down further. Participation and commitment fall off in larger groups -- mobility suffers; leadership doesnít develop naturally but is manipulative and political."

Hall has made a mildly caustic generalization. Iíd like to take his point further -- all the way to caricature and distortion. We need shorthand for the type of large-company operative who is most likely to take advantage of the task-minded introvert -- how about "BBV," for Big-Business Veteran?

How does the BBV get through a staff meeting?

By avoiding all responsibility for whatís going wrong and dropping a single new strategy or angle that delights the presiding officer.

Does the BBV really like working with all those people?

Heís acclimated to crowds and especially groups. To the extent the people in those groups become individualized, it mostly confuses him.

Who does the BBV look up to?

Whoeverís at the next level on the "org chart."

Who is the BBV loyal to?

That depends on your definition of "loyalty." Does he own a dog?

You are mostly saying "he"? What about female extroverts?

The hard-core are just as bad, just as shallow. Then again, millions of women have given up on the Fortune 500 and launched their own companies, a trend on which your commentator did some 1990s research that further soured him on the corporate suite...

What happens to extroverted sensors when they devote more than 20 years to large enterprises?

They can end up making the place -- and "place" means the whole operation --- hell for task-oriented introverts. Not even because our extroverted BBV is a bad guy (or gal), but because introverts can't process signals, groups and openings anywhere near as fast.

One Belated Escape, One Polluted Bubble

In a midwestern state, I was ushered inside the headquarters of a large corporation to make a presentation about "generations." This was mid-í98, when that topic was tolerated, even encouraged. The company was a donor to my then-employer, a west-coast think tank, and the presentation went okay.

Later in the week I arranged to have coffee with our key contact inside that firm. To my surprise, he wanted to meet off the premises; in fact, he wanted to come to my hotel. My plan was to pitch him to begin supporting a new line of generational research. His counter-plan was to convey why life in big business was absolute hell.

Another reorganization was coming. Only one person in his department was trustworthy. The new house he had just purchased had been struck by lightning the night before my presentation, which he apologized for missing. And the line of research I had just floated was not something any of his colleagues would grasp -- heck, he couldnít even get them to pay attention to long-range market patterns in their own explicit field!

Our chat lasted 45 minutes. I thanked him for his bluntness. Perhaps it was a ruse? Was he trying to throw off my pitch by a preemptive sob story? Doubtful. As we sat on that bench, I felt the manís angst. On those rare times you see honest intensity inside a large enterprise, something is either breaking out, or breaking down. In this case, both: Less than a year later, my corporate contact soon quit that bluest of blue chips -- to join a smallish think tank in his home city. Iím pretty sure he was an introvert, and he was never meant to be a big-company operative. It took him 20 years to discover the latter. A long trial, to wrap up a big error. You can always trade down to a smaller house.

Move to a smaller house, as part of exiting the corporate rat race? Seems heretical, with America in the throes of a housing boom. Actually, the boom left its healthy phase sometime during í03, and moved to the nuthouse: Price-escalation now requires blue smoke, mirrors and trap doors. As Michael Powell put in it a Washington Post article 7/29/2005, "For mortgage scammers, deed thieves and property flippers, this is the Golden Age." This URL can take you to the whole piece (although you might have to register):

www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/28/AR2005072801729.html

But our interest here is what the real-estate bubble says about extrovert versus introvert. First weíd ask: What kind of industry is "real estate"? Apart from surveyors, bricklayers and electricians, it strikes me as Extrovert Heaven. In normal times, it thrives on millions of superficial relationships. And these days? Everyone is making money except (a) the poor saps who think theyíre getting a bargain; and (b) homeowners in inflated areas who donít want to sell yet face exorbitant taxes thanks to the pricing bubble.

"We've never seen so many schemes and such complexity to the fraud," says New York-based Sarah Ludwig. "Everyone works to defraud -- the broker, the appraiser, the attorney and the inspector. Before a homeowner knows it, they are in way over their heads." According to the Post, Ludwigís "Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project" goes after predatory lending.

Adds reporter Powell: "Suspected major mortgage-finance violations reported by financial institutions increased from 4,225 in 2001 to 17,127 [in 2004], and the money lost in such fraud has doubled in the past year... Often the fraud goes lightly punished and scam artists operate in plain sight, government investigators acknowledge. Prosecutors mount few investigations into the mortgage industry, preferring to leave that task to state regulatory agencies. And the firms that engage in questionable practices are expert at avoiding regulation. For instance, these companies often buy homes and resell them themselves -- avoiding the need for a real-estate license and state regulation."

You might chalk all this up to greed. But arenít bubbles -- which require self-delusion (seers and suckers) interacting with flim-flam (smooth operators) -- far more likely when an economic sector is dominated by extroverts? They monitor each other eagerly, reciprocate the opportunism, enjoy confirmation by the crowd, collaborate on fraud-friendly tools like "interest-only mortgages" and -- as if by magic -- they all make out on the way up.

Prediction: By 2007, only a few coastal towns will still be sellerís markets, and Congress will be holding the investigations they should be doing right now. Right now? An enterprising Congressman could demand that those interest-only mortgages -- the 2005 equivalent of a í98-model dot-com IPO -- be banned by federal law.

Meanwhile, if youíre an introvert stuck in an apartment, relax. Your rent probably hasnít gone up much since 2000. And youíll get much better deals on a home in another few years.

Jack Welch Delivers the Best Counterpoint

We now leave the housing bubble and return to the corporate labyrinth -- for a surprise. Despite my cynicism, and all those Dilbert cartoons, and Lucy Kellawayís droll columns in the Financial Times, great companies do exist. And they could not be that way without several layers of extroverted leaders and managers.

None other than Jack Welch, CEO of GE for 20 years, rules out introverts as corporate leaders in his 2005 book Winning. The book sets forth a "Four Es plus One P" framework (pages 84-85), and applies it not just to whole divisions but the smallest team. The lone P is for passion, one E is for edge, and another is for execute (which is not a reference to capital punishment).

But itís his top two Es that will cause introverts laboring inside the big company to gaze longingly at the fire exit. According to Jack, if it's leadership you are trying to get:

"The first E is positive energy [and] it means the ability to go go go -- to thrive on action and relish change. People with positive energy are generally extroverted and optimistic. They make conversations and friends easily." (Wait, it gets worse.) "The second E is the ability to energize others. Positive energy is the ability to get other people revved up. People who energize can inspire their team to take on the impossible -- and enjoy the hell out of doing it."

Reading Welch, I felt my stance on big business being vindicated and assaulted at the same time. "Assaulted" because the man's life and works "prove" that certain large companies are much greater than the sum of their parts. "Vindicated" because he figured out that no introvert can be a great manager. A good scientist or engineer or accountant, sure, and perhaps a reliable manager in the bank branch office or Social Security field office. But not a top-flight manager whose "stock is rising" back there at HQ. Radiating positive energy, pulling it out of your people -- give me a break.

Welch, on page 92 of Winning: "Any candidate you hire in a managerial role must have the first two Es, positive energy and the ability to energize. These are personality traits, and I donít think they can be trained into someone..."

Sometimes I make the case that self-employment is best for introverts. Sounds crazy, but consider this: Self-employment produces no income without a small and resilient set of professional alliances and collaborations -- and isnít that the introvertís preferred way of work? To get there, we have to market. And "market" means go out, identify buyers, and close the sale. So, self-employment is ideal for introverts -- except for the marketing.

Hmmm, thatís about like declaring: Except for the fire, the building in question is structurally sound. Okay, too big a debate to handle here. And the introvert who rejects the instability and "out there" aspects of self-employment is left with two options: (1) Take whatever you can find in a big and semi-bureaucratic work setting, and hope for the best, perhaps by acquiring an extroverted "protector." Or (2) subordinate all personalities -- including your own -- and get smart about probabilities and strategies. The remainder of this essay builds on that second option.

From Jungís Diagnosis to Jensenís Toolkit

I have saved the best quote for last:

"Any large company composed of wholly admirable persons has the morality and intelligence of an unwieldy, stupid, and violent animal. The bigger the organization, the more unavoidable is its immorality and blind stupidity... Society, by automatically stressing all the collective qualities in its individual representatives, puts a premium on mediocrity, on everything that settles down to vegetate in an easy, irresponsible way. Individuality will inevitably be driven to the wall. This process begins in school, continues at the university, and rules all departments in which the State has a hand."

Has he gotten your attention? Thatís not Jack Welch, itís Carl Jung. Does he know some of your colleagues?

"In a small social body, the individuality of its members is better safeguarded, and the greater is their relative freedom and the possibility of conscious responsibility. Without freedom there can be no morality. Our admiration for great organizations dwindles when once we become aware of the other side of the wonder -- the tremendous piling up and accentuation of all that is primitive in man, and the unavoidable destruction of his individuality in the interests of the monstrosity that every great organization in fact is..."

SOURCE: The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious. (The actual passage is on pages 100-101 of The Portable Jung, Penguin paperback edition 1976.) Yep, I found someone with credibility who makes the rest of this document sound moderate.

Carl Jung also published Psychological Types (1921). That book did more to place "introversion" into its proper context than anything before or since. When it came to human relationships and psychic health, Jung was and is the master. And by age 40 he knew to get out of large organizations, including his university teaching set-up.

Then again, Messrs. Welch and Jung could both be right. Welch would contend that the countryís R&D and trade horizons would turn dark without Americaís high-exporting large enterprises. Heíll get no argument from me there. And a few sprawling companies -- Microsoft is the one I saw from the inside -- manage to be havens for introverts by following Edward T. Hallís Rule of Twelve. (With a bonus: They break up each software-development team after several months. Each group is therefore goal-focused and time-sensitive, rather than a clique in becoming.)

But what does all of that mean for the introvert seeking professional satisfaction? It means I had to look bloody hard to figure out how to wrap up on a pro-active note. Can anyone make sense of Hall, Welch and Jung in a single manual or guidebook? Well, yes.

Corporate communications expert Bill Jensen has written four books on individual effectiveness within and around large enterprises. His 2004 offering was The Simplicity Survival Handbook. For 12 years, Jensen has done real research, rather than dream up things for you to make bets on. Unlike Tom Peters, he is no gasbag; unlike Peter Senge, he isnít on Cloud Nine. Jensen's average sentence length is shorter than any consultant who publishes. And many of his recommendations transcend the natural gap between extroverts and introverts.

Most importantly, he shows you how -- without messing up your career -- to escape clutter, time traps, pointless debates, and delegated dumps. If you have to be inside that big company, and are too introverted to maneuver in the Fortune 500 power-seeker mode, you can still think your way around a hundred traps. Because he focuses on managing information and peers (as opposed to projects and subordinates), most of what Jensen says can be done by you, the individual. Call no meetings, seek no permission.

Talk about pro-active: The most striking part of Jensenís Handbook deals with how you can read a companyís culture before taking the job! I canít say enough good about this product. Between The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker (1966) and this hyper-modern version by Jensen, you wonít need much else. His website lets you download three of its chapters without charge:

http://www.simplerwork.com/handbook.htm

No, I have never met the man. Would love to attend one of his workshops -- except to do so would mean being hired by one of the big companies that pay him. Too risky.

Meanwhile, as indicated in the introductory box, this essay has quietly begun a series on work, introversion, and MBTI. For more information, or to append a dissent or affirmation to this essay, please write FrankGregorsky@aol.com. And remember that the Introvertís best protection -- whether the work setting is large or small, tall or flat -- remains a well-crafted Direct Question.