Surviving in a work culture built for extroverts: Q&A with introvert and author Morra Aarons-Mele

Diversity and inclusion is an increasingly hot topic in the world of business. The data points typically considered when discussing the need to increase populations of under-represented groups of people tend to focus on gender, race, generation, differently abled, LGTQ, and veterans. Cognitive and behavioral differences are starting to make their way into the mainstream of this topic.

How people think and construct meaning is largely determined by values, personality type, experiences, and skills. While Myers Briggs and other personality tests have been around for a while, personality characteristics such as extroverts and introverts are considered for diversity but seldom analyzed for how the environment impacts success options for each of these personality traits. The biggest struggle for the introverts is fitting into a world built for extroverts. Ask any introvert and she will tell you that when it comes to navigating the road to success: one size does not fit all.

What’s an introvert to do? I met up with Morra Aarons-Mele, author of Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert's Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You'd Rather Stay Home) to find out how introverts can find professional happiness in a world not built for them. The book hit the market this week.

Dr. Patti Fletcher: Tell us about you.

Morra Aarons-Mele: I’m a mother of three, an introvert married to an extrovert, business owner, and committed hermit entrepreneur. My company, Women Online, creates digital campaigns that mobilize women. I have launched campaigns for world leaders and organizations. I love my work but I also love everything else in my life, and I’m devoted to developing skills and systems that make space for both.

I’m very ambitious and very driven. I’m also someone who struggles with anxiety and depression. I quit nine jobs before I was thirty. Right now, I have a job and work I love. And I work at home in my yoga pants three days a week.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote the book because I have heard too many introverted or anxious professionals say they can’t pursue their dreams of a big career or owning a business because they don’t want to be “out there” all the time.

I wrote the book for achievement-oriented people who are introverted, anxious, or just tired of the networking, deal-making, and nonstop work culture we’ve come to see as the norm.

I used to go for every big job and opportunity. I ran marketing for Europe’s largest online travel company when I was 25. I kept getting promoted, and I kept being miserable. The office politics, the hours, the pace, networking, and rules of getting ahead rubbed up against my very temperament. I was living out someone else’s climb up the ladder, and I was fighting a losing battle.

My book is a practical and skills based navigation guide in a world that defines "success" with overwhelming messages like “Network your way to the top” or "Never eat lunch alone”. For many, the messages induce panic attacks and misery or prevent ambitious introverts from pursuing their dreams.

What are the key themes from your book?

I like to flip the script on classic interpretations of success and offer readers an alternate path to create their own version of success. I interviewed 120 people and culled a lot of data to breakdown the skills that we most often draw on in business: sales, building a business development pipeline, negotiating, building and maintaining a great network, building an online brand, and getting out there (when you really have to) and networking in person.

We get into the nitty gritty. In my chapter “The Hermit Entrepreneur” I dive into what it’s like for a small business owner who wants to maximize control over her schedule and socializing time. We start with cash flow and knowing your monthly nut, because if you don’t have control over your money, you can’t have control over your time. We review how to build a pipeline, find the right kind of customer, and decide when and if you want to scale your business. I think it’s incredibly useful!

What advice do you give to introverts who live in a world where extroverts are rewarded?

A gifted introvert salesperson is a secret weapon for any organization or small business. Pride in your craft is one of the most successful selling points anyone can have. It beats a hundred hours of schmoozing, because the easiest new business to win comes from someone who is already your customer.

The art of making wonderful connections through acquaintances or strangers is introvert- and hermit-friendly, because it’s about being attuned to another person and reading subtle signals.

In business, networks are everything, especially if you are responsible for sales or business development. Silicon Valley CEO Arvind Rajan (who also used to hide in the bathroom) suggests that we introverts reframe our expectations of ourselves as leaders. “Networking is a skill we learn just like we learn how to do Excel,” he says. “At some level you need to master the basics. But you’re better off playing to your strengths.” Arvind has coped with his social anxiety through a very successful twenty-year career in Silicon Valley.

If you’re shy, a strong digital presence and online brand is especially critical, because it creates a powerful digital footprint that separates you from the competition and does your networking for you, even when you’re away from your iPhone.

If you are a business leader, you may be missing out on incredible talent. Learning from introverts such as Aarons-Mele provides much needed insight into the struggles introverts face in today’s workplace.

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