MBA introverts

Can introverts really enjoy the MBA experience?

One of the taglines most commonly used by MBAs to convince young professionals to apply to their schools is the promise to help them become the leaders of tomorrow. HBS, for instance, states in bold letters on its website that its objective is to “educate the leaders who make a difference in the world”. Despite obvious cultural differences with the US, European and Asian business schools usually display the same type of ambition. HKUST explains that its “MBA program nurtures global leaders who can speak their minds”, while HEC Paris organises for its MBA students an annual leadership seminar alongside French army officers.

The ideal of charismatic leadership is to be found everywhere in business schools. It usually starts even before the courses actually begin! Applicants are indeed often asked to demonstrate in an essay or during an interview that they have at some point during their pre-MBA career shown authority or charisma.

The way most business school curricula are conceived also reflects the weight of extroversion in the MBA culture. Learning through case studies implies a lot of discussion and tends to favour charismatic or talkative students over shy and introverted candidates. This trend is reinforced by the emphasis put on students’ participation in the final grade – even if professors are well aware that students who participate the most are not necessarily the best.

This situation should not come as a surprise. The concept of the MBA started in the US, where extroversion is a seminal part of the business culture. While exporting this degree to the rest of the world, the US has also exported the ideal of an easy-going, quick-minded and charismatic leader who does not hesitate to speak his mind. MBAs can therefore be a tough experience for students who enjoy spending time on their own more than partying or doing a presentation in public. In her bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain shares the experience of an Asian-American student at HBS who is having a hard time adapting to a programme in which so much importance is given to talking and group activities, while thinking quietly seems underrated.

Extroversion and introversion are characters traits first described by Carl Jung in 1921, and which can be partly measured by the MBTI (Myer Briggs Type Indicator) assessment, a psychological questionnaire invented in the 1960s by Isabel Briggs Myers and Katherine Cook Briggs. Based on these, extroverts usually tend to enjoy human interaction more than being on their own. They usually thrive in brainstorming sessions or at parties or social gatherings. They are energised when around other people, and tend to think out loud. Sharing opinions and ideas with others is their way of coming to a conclusion. Introverts are, of course, the exact opposite. They always think and analyse before they talk and usually like to spend time on their own. They are not necessarily shy, but they are clearly not party animals, and enjoy deep conversations more than small talk.

Let us be clear. Extroverts are not better than introverts or vice-versa. They have on average the same IQ, and geniuses, successful entrepreneurs or murderers can be found equally in both groups. However, having said that, one cannot ignore the fact that MBAs were originally designed in a country with a dominant culture of extroversion, and tend to favour quick-witted and talkative students.

Does that mean that it is going to be more difficult for an introvert to enjoy his MBA than it is for an extrovert? Maybe. It probably depends on how introverted the MBA candidate really is. If you are only slightly introverted, and have already faced the corporate world and the need to speak your mind in mind-numbing meetings in order to be noticed, this should be OK. If you are a pure introvert, however, this will be more challenging. In this case, you had better think twice about doing a MBA. And you had better be aware that if you decide to go for it you will have to fight a constant war against yourself. This may be a smart decision if you want to learn the tricks that will make you look like an extrovert.

What is certain, however, is that an introvert’s MBA experience will be unique in many ways. Compared to an extrovert, an introvert will probably spend more time going through additional readings recommended by professors, but attend fewer parties. He or she may struggle a bit more to deliver an energetic presentation, but will perform better in writing or in deeply analytical assignments. He or she will also network with fewer people, but is more likely to make friends for life.


Article published in the South China Morning Post on September 17, 2014

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