Amma Marfo: Rethinking the stigma of Introversion and how it can create change in career culture

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Amma Marfo: Rethinking the stigma of Introversion and how it can affect change in career culture.
Photo Courtesy of Amma Marfo

Introduction

We talked to Amma Marfo, a speaker and facilitator. Amma trains large corporations, nonprofits and college campuses around the idea of using creativity and finding ways your temperament can best work for you in the workplace. Amma is also the author of The I’s Have it, a book detailing the importance of understanding the roles introversion and extroversion should play in our society. We had a very insightful conversion around subjects like introverts vs extroverts, fundamental changes to career searching and STEAM vs STEM. Read and Listen now only on STEAM Boston.

Check out the podcast below!


Transcript

Kunle Lawal: Tell me a bit about yourself.

Amma Marfo: Sure! So, my name is Amma Marfo and I am an independent professional in a couple of different capacities.

So the two main ones that I do right now is I’m a speaker and facilitator and trainer largely on college campuses—sometimes with nonprofits or corporations—around things like creativity and finding the way that your temperament can best work in the workplace. So introversion versus extroversion. And I also do some freelance digital marketing on the side.

Kunle Lawal: What kind of career counseling have you done in the past?

Amma Marfo: So career counseling is based in a lot of ways on the experience that I had when I was moving out of my prior career. So my background is in higher education. So I’ve worked on college campuses for a little bit over 10 years with students that are participating in Student Activities, student leadership, and student life. And around the tail end of 2015, a couple of different things converged for me. So, on the one hand, I was doing a lot of independent research and speaking and training because as I was starting to write more and look at how I was working on projects, I realized that I kind of wanted to do something different from the work that I was doing. And then at the same time, some of the opportunities available on the campus where I was working weren’t aligning with where my values were, how I wanted to interact with students. So I managed to make a pivot away from an on-campus higher education rule into a more independent professional role.

And the more I told people my story and talked to them about how I was operating, the more I realized that there were a lot of people that were feeling very similarly. They felt that their talents on campus could be used in a different sort of way, but they weren’t really sure how. So I started having some more conversations with people who have done it successfully and teased out a sort of framework that can help inform those who are looking to make those same types of changes.

So a lot of the career counseling work that I do on an independent basis is coaching that particular segment of professionals through that part of their process.

Kunle Lawal: What kind of people have you coached doing your career counseling?

Amma Marfo: Okay. So the group that I’ve coached has primarily been higher education professionals who are looking to move out of an on-campus facing role. So if they’re doing things like advising fraternities and sororities, or perhaps working Career Centers on campus, and are hoping to be able to take those skills outside of education and into another field.

So I spend a lot of time helping them translate those experiences and talk about those skills in a way that can seem valuable. Within a different sort of work.

Kunle Lawal: You wrote the book, The I’s Have It, and It caught my eye because, the book kind of details the important roles that introverts play in our society. it’s too commonplace nowadays to think that introverts are secluded from society. The book kind of demystifies and debunks common beliefs about introversion and extroversion. So could you kind of define in your own way what introversion and extroversion are?

Amma Marfo: Sure!

So this is an area where a lot of the speaking of facilitating that I was doing started, primarily because it was a construct around success and leadership that I hadn’t heard talked about very much in terms of education. So not just, “what does it mean to be one or the other,” but “how are leadership opportunities considered if someone identifies as introverted versus extroverted…and how are we classifying success?”

So the way that introversion and extroversion are typically placed is one group likes people, extroverts, and the other group doesn’t like people, introverts, is not true. First of all, I have it on good authority from friends and colleagues either type can dislike people so it’s definitely not just introverts!

But for another, introversion speaks less to how you relate to people and more to how you’re responding to stimulus around you. So for a lot of extroverts, the way that the world is structured with a lot of different stimuli means a lot of different things going on. A lot of different demands on their attention.

A lot of them are pulling energy in and becoming more of themselves, becoming better versions of themselves for interacting with a world that has a lot going on. Introverts deal with that differently, and there’s actually Neuroscience background in this as well. So it’s not just socialized. It’s not just how we’re taught.

“It also comes down to brain science”

It also comes down to brain science. So in those same types of situations, introverts are having energy pulled from them. It takes a lot for them to be able to interact in those spaces in the same type of way, which means a lot of the things that we’re thinking about as signs of success: being able to speak to people relatively quickly without having time to prepare, being in social situations being effortless? All of those things contribute to what we feel like leadership should be. And when we decide that’s the metric, anybody who doesn’t do that naturally or has to work for it a little bit automatically get discounted. But introverts have a lot of other values that they can bring to you organizations can bring to leadership.

They are very deliberate. They think a lot about what they do or say before they’re going through. They are very good at small-scale conversations. So they might not be the person that goes to the front of a room effortlessly to share their thoughts. They’re going to be really good at one-on-one conversations, get a lot out of those people…and odds are getting more from those conversations than extroverts might. So recognizing what your organization really needs, and who can really fulfill those demands? I think that’s a really big part of the evening of the playing field across temperament.

Kunle Lawal: So kind of based on that logic, you could surmise that introverts would have a hard time performing in certain types of interviews (as opposed to extroverts) because some interviews require you to be there with no prior knowledge of questions that are going to be asked. So introverts might have a hard time coming up with answers on the spot as opposed to extroverts. Introverts might take more time to actually think about the answer than just blurting something out.

Amma Marfo: That’s definitely a big part of it, and one of the pieces of advice that I give to organizations because, in a sense, it’s not just me talking to those introverts going into those spaces for me. It’s also really important to be able to advise the individuals that are custodians of the environment to also be prepared to meet those individuals, which means if you’re interviewing for a position and you have somebody coming in, don’t take it as a given that they know what they’re going to be asked. Being able to share questions and say, “Here’s what we’re going to be talking about. I would love it if you had examples of this particular thing.” And to me, a lot of organizations have said well that feels like cheating or we’re not sure we want to be able to do that.

It’s no different than letting someone studying for a test. You wouldn’t want someone to go into a test unprepared. Why would you have them do the same for an interview? Which is all that is: a test for a particular position.

Kunle Lawal: You also coined introversion as pasta and extroversion as rice. Could you explain the logic behind that?

Amma Marfo: I can! I was trying to come up with a way to explain that a lot of the circumstances that we’re in are similar, but the way we respond to them is different. And being somebody that’s always really liked cooking, really liked the food, that ended up being the most apt example.

So I always tell people when I do it in presentations, “if you remember nothing else think about how those two foods behave.” Because I think it helps us understand the people around us really well. So what it says is, say you have a pot of boiling water. You’re getting ready to make a pot of boiling water.

So when you’re making rice, it actually doesn’t start with boiling water. It goes in along with cold water and comes to temperature as the water increases. Yes, rice expands. It cooks and it becomes better and more edible for its time in that very hot, very stimulating environment and it takes a very long time for it to overcook or burn.

“Extroverts are rice”

Extroverts are rice. They go into situations and can kind of stick with them as they heat up and feel really comfortable in those environments for an extended period of time but even they can overdo it. So if you leave anyone in a situation that’s in boiling water for too long, they’re going to burn, they’re going to leach starch out. It’s not gonna go well for them. But extroverts have a longer amount of time in that. Comparatively, introverts are a little bit more like pasta because they’ll go into that environment of boiling water. They do need stimulation. They do need boiling water. They do need social interaction to be able to be successful. But they can only do it for so long before they have to come out. If they don’t come out, all the starch leaks out, things break apart…and there’s no going back at that point. There’s no amount of wanting your pasta to not be overdone. There’s no amount of trying to turn back and rescue it that’s going to bring it back to life. And introverts tend to operate in highly stimulating environments in the same way.

And not just social interaction, either. They’ve done research where that applies to temperature in a room. They’ve done research on how it’s affected by the amount of lighting in a room. If it’s too bright that’s a similar type of stimulus. Feelings of hunger! So introverts: if you ever feel as though you get hangry more often than other people? You’re not imagining it! There is science to back that up.

So thinking about how each side deals with the stimulation, it felt like the most apt example to help people understand that you do need the stimulation, you do need interaction, and it’s not about introverts wanting to isolate themselves. It’s just they relate to that stimulation differently. 

Kunle Lawal: Kind of thinking about all of this together, thinking about the way introverts reacts to different situations vs extroverts and going back to what you said about during the interview process for introverts, it’ll be nice if they have questions beforehand because the interview process is kind of like a test. What ways can we change or mutate our current interview process or job onboarding process to give both introverts and extroverts a fair playing field?

Amma Marfo: So the two points that I tend to bring up that are usually the easiest to implement if you’re looking for low-hanging fruit. There are other ways that it can get a little bit more complicated, but the two that I always recommend that are relatively straightforward to execute: one is preparation, and the other is time. 

Give people the resources they need to prepare for interviews

So being able to let people prepare by giving them the resources that they need- who they’re going to be talking to, what they’re going to be talking about while they’re on campus. They might be going if it’s a day-long or two-day long schedule. Again, going back to my time in higher education, a lot of our interviews are two days long. So you’re spending all day for two straight days going from room to room, from group to group, feeling like you’re repeating yourself, with no idea if you’ve already told what you’re talking about. So being able to say “from 9 a.m. To 9:30, here’s who you’re going to be with, here’s what they might want to know, here’s the context in which you might want to be able to present yourself.” And again, all of that is essentially a study guide for the day or the experience that they’re about to go into. 

And the other piece that I like to recommend for that is time. Again, going back to being conservative what people might need a lot of us to feel that it’s considerate to get things done in a short period of time.

So one thing goes into the next thing, goes into the next thing, and there’s not a whole lot of breaks or interruption to be able to think about what you’ve gone through, or asking good questions when they’re posed to you because your brain has not caught up to what’s happening in the room yet.

So, being able to space things out. Encourage people to pause when they need to pause— and making sure that your body language and how you’re conducting yourself match that. Because I know we’ll sometimes tell people to “take all the time you need,” but then we’ll tap our fingers or tap our feet or recognize that we might be looking impatient and that can impact how people feel in that particular space.

So that’s one piece of time. The other piece of time is I would say between individual pieces of an interview if someone’s going from one place to the next to the next? Giving them five, ten minutes to compose themselves to think about what they’ve just talked about, maybe take a few notes for themselves. Because it is an interview on both sides and recognizing that sometimes in order to get the best version of these things.

It’s worth adding what ultimately might be an extra hour at the end of the day, but that person has what they need to recover and be the best version of themselves. Even if you are putting them in a longer amount of time than they might initially be comfortable. 

Kunle Lawal: I just want to say I identify as an introvert. It’s kind of just the person I am.

Amma Marfo: Welcome to the tribe.

Kunle Lawal: Yeah, you know about a year ago. I was interviewing for a position at LinkedIn in California and my whole life I’ve lived in Boston, MA. I’ve been to other places other than Boston but my whole life I’ve lived in Boston, MA. They required me to travel all the way to California.

So I go to new places for the first time seeing people I’ve never seen before not have any questions, prior and having to answer questions on the spot made it kind of tough for me, too. 

Amma Marfo: There is also the time difference- don’t forget that, either!

Kunle Lawal: YEAH. So it was just a lot of information in my face all at once. But they did have some stuff in a place where they would give me a few minute break before my next interview or before an expert comes in.

You know, they kind of guide me and talk to me saying “Hey it so if you have any questions, let us know” things like that. So even those like little cues kind of help me go along the process really well.

Amma Marfo: Yeah, anywhere that’s willing to allow for that time as it’s needed and be able to recognize, here’s what we can ultimately give you to be successful.

Anybody that’s taking the time to recognize that is ultimately gonna…it’s a sign of a better experience ahead and that they’ll be able to work with you and understand who you are and how you work. Yeah.

Kunle Lawal: Communications is very powerful in the marketplace. How do you empower other introverts, for example, to speak up or to be more effective in their job and career search?

Amma Marfo: So again, I think I like to approach the issue from both sides. So being able to coach introverts about things that are valuable to them and finding ways to articulate them. However, they need to feel comfortable as early as possible. So if there’s something that you know that you need in order to be successful within the context of an interview, being able to find a place to slip that into an answer.

So maybe it’s not something you’re prepared to say, “I need to ask for this particular thing.” Practicing how you answer questions, where some of those preferences are some of those needs, are demonstrated as you talk, can help find ways to insert addressing some of those things that might be harder or more stimulating to bring up over time.

That’s one piece of it. I would also say a lot of its again goes back to practice and preparation. So if there’s something you’re nervous about asking about, find somebody that you’re close to and talk it through with them. Practice how you’re going to answer that question that you’re nervous about if it comes up, to think about and even right out in advance…some things that you make sure that you want to say, but are worried that you might forget about or aren’t sure you’re going to be able to articulate but on the opposite side. 

I also like to really encourage organizations to, A,  spread out, again going back to time how often and how long people have to contribute to things. And the example I gave with this is meetings.

Giving people the resources they need for being prepared for meetings.

So if you’re going into a meeting, and the decision needs to be made? First of all, anybody coming in there needs to know enough about the decision that’s being made so that they can ask informed questions. So everybody needs to be able to be prepared with what’s on the agenda, what we’re going to be talking about, and what the stakes might be if there’s something particularly stakes based there. But also people should have the opportunity after a meeting, even if it’s only for about 48 hours, to go to a supervisor and ask questions or to think a little bit longer about the input that they want might want to be able to put in. Because sometimes the answer to the question, or even the objection that you might want to voice, doesn’t come to you at that moment when you need it. And more often than not, the types of decisions we’re making aren’t the emergencies that we treat them like they are. So being able to say as someone who’s guiding a meeting or the custodian of a decision that’s about to be made, saying “if anybody wants to talk about this, we won’t close the book on this choice for another two days. 

So if you want to come to speak to me privately if you want to be able to write out some of your thoughts in an email, if you want to share questions that maybe aren’t coming to you right away. I will accept those with the same amount of veracity and the same understanding that this is important as someone who was able to speak in that meeting.” And being able to open up that space for people to communicate differently over an extended period of time a lot of the time gets you better questions, but it also gets you better solutions because people are able to think about, “I didn’t have this thought right away, but I read something after work and it made me think about what if we did this?” It gives people the opportunity to bring in additional sources, go back to other things in their mind, move through that thought process a little bit slower and more deliberately—which, especially for the types of organizations that we’re working on, that are constantly needing to readjust based on who they’re serving, taking that extra time doesn’t hurt anybody and it helps a whole lot more people.

Kunle Lawal: What is your go-to method when you’re trying to navigate your career or life as an introvert?

Amma Marfo: Go-to method…I don’t know if it’s based on introversion or just the nature of being from a family that really values education, but I am a massively curious person. So I love learning new things. I love getting information. I am always reading or listening to podcasts or finding new ways to bring information into my life. That’s fairly common with introverts. Some of it speaks to the preparation piece, some of it speaks to a way of bringing in information that you can pace yourself.

Well, I think a big part of having as much information as possible, but I know about an organization has been really valuable. So as I was going into doing career coaching with people, I had gotten a career counseling certificate back in grad school because it was an area I was curious about and I had space in my schedule. I ended up being the only person in my cohort who took on that additional certification, but I also really wanted to know how things are being done now.

What wasn’t working based on when I learned all of those things? What new things did I need to learn about it? Who did I know that was doing similar work and how could what they did inform how I did? So I love talking to people and doing informational interviews, which doesn’t always feel super intuitive when you’re dealing with introverted people. You might think I wouldn’t want to talk to people, but I love those one-on-one conversations and having really deep meaningful questions answered from people that I knew and I trusted and all of that gathering information and being curious.

I think this made me not just good at what I do, but kind of lessened those fears and lessens that discomfort when I decide to try new things. So my advice to people is always “whatever it is if you’re curious about getting as much information about it as you possibly can, there’s never been a better time course of history to be able to do it. It’s all out there go find it.

Kunle Lawal: Oh, yeah. Everything is there.

How was creativity important why I guess why is going to be important creativity important in STEAM fields?

Amma Marfo: I think creativity is important in STEAM fields because to the point that I was just making, we’re at an unprecedented time where we’re trying to figure out how to make some systems that have existed for a long time work in light of new circumstances. But we’re also needing to develop new systems because some of those things are so far gone—based on how they were originally built or who they were originally built for—that we need to throw them out and build something new.

So you need people that are unafraid to ask those questions and try to serve as many different types of people from a number of different perspectives and think about doing things in a way they’ve never been done before. I can’t think of a single industry that isn’t impacted by this: manufacturing is going to have to change, transportation and fuel are going to have to change, communication is changing.

Everywhere we look there’s an opportunity for something to be done differently in a way that it can work better and serve more people. And not more of the same people, but serve a variety and a diversity of people differently. And that means that you need people that can think in a way that things haven’t been done before. Because we’re doing something on so many fronts that’s never been done before.

Kunle Lawal: And how do you think diversity plays into that?

Amma Marfo: So I think diversity plays into that because so many of those decisions were made with one, or two tops, different types of people into consideration, but I think some of the needs that were being addressed by those particular Industries go in direct conflict with what other groups need.

So having somebody that can knowledgeably speak up about whether they’re saying “hey this affects me,” or “hey, have we thought about this group?” Whoever is choosing to bring that concern to light. I think recognizing that having a lot of the same people with a lot of the same experiences means you’re only going to serve, again, one or two groups really really well. Unless you have a lot of people in those groups paying attention, but historically they don’t have to, which means that you need who are directly impacted and do want to speak up for making sure that their voice, their perspective, and other people that are like them are heard. You need those people in those spaces.

Kunle Lawal: Are there any final words of wisdom to the STEAM Community.

Amma Marfo: Hmm. I mean, I love the idea of talking about it in terms of STEAM because I think in so many different ways it’s been broken up in some in some ways a false binary because we all need each other to be able to make this sort of impact and build the type of creative solutions that will get the world moving forward in the right way.

So I love the idea of continuing to work with people that think a little bit differently. If you don’t think you’re artsy, try something out. If you don’t think that your sciencey, try something out. We have so many different opportunities to just test things to see if we like them. If they don’t work, try a different way or go back to what you were doing, but not being afraid to experiment. And that all goes back again to curiosity: being curious enough to see what field, what industry, what line of work might need what you have.

Kunle Lawal: Yeah, one of the main reasons why we used the name STEAM instead of STEM was because we feel like people who are creative, people who bring the design aspects of the work are important in any STEM field. 

Amma Marfo: Yeah, I think about arts and design and humanities and how all of those fields interact and advance, and how different it is from what STEM does and how badly STEM needs a lot of those things?

Because doing it in a vacuum can create some very specific solutions that leave out some really big and important factors that those who are doing less technical work and more social and humanities-based work need to be able to have a say in. Because it’s going to affect everybody. So making sure that all of those populations and all of those perspectives are considered as we move forward as a society? We’re all going to be better for that.

Kunle Lawal: And a final question. What are you reading right now?

Amma Marfo: Oh good Heavens lots of things. And you can’t see me, but I’m sitting near one bookshelf, with another four books on top of it, one to my right. It’s everywhere.

So one that I’m reading right now, I’m nearly done with it is, he was actually a TEDx Cambridge speaker this past spring: Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, he writes for Harvard Business Review, and the very provocative title of the book, which I like so much. I might have put on a cover and then just put it on the cover of all of my books is Why do so Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And how to fix it).

So it talks a lot about what we perceive to be good leadership traits and how often that can actually be damaging to an organization, what leadership traits come naturally to women, and why we should make a case for more of those in our organizations and why it should be in some cases easier and more Level for women to become leaders and in some cases more Level and harder for men to do it. So it’s really really interesting research.

Kunle Lawal: Gotta check it out.

Thank you. Thanks for talking to me tonight

Amma Marfo: My pleasure I’ve really enjoyed this.

Thanks so much for the opportunity. 

Website Links and Relevant Details

The I’s Have It by Amma Marfo

Follow Amma Marfo on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ammamarfo/

Check out her website: https://ammamarfo.com/

Thank you for listening/reading! Be sure to follow STEAM Boston on all platforms for all updates @steamboston.

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