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Re-imagining work events: turning enduring into enjoying by Dr Nicky Eddison and Dr Ros Leslie

“Oh no, I have to speak. In front of everyone. Why did I agree to this? Please don’t make me go first. Please, I do not want to go last. I have to introduce myself, say something about myself. My heart’s pounding, my mouth is dry. I’ve got nothing interesting to say. Why do they make us do this?”.  If this sounds familiar, you are not alone, many people feel like this, the fear-inducing “creeping death” of introducing yourself and being the focus of attention. This often occurs at training events or team meetings. The most interesting question is why?  Why do we create environments, particularly at work, which people don’t enjoy and consequently don’t thrive in?  We know the importance of teams1 but do we need to re-imagine how team interactions should be facilitated?  A similar scenario occurs in online training, where people are hurled into breakout rooms.  Forced to discuss, against the clock, a certain topic. Is this really the best way to get people to relax, engage, and absorb the information they are being given, and ultimately learn?  Training facilitators will often say, “if I don’t make people interact, they will just sit there and be an inactive bystander” or “I have to make the session interesting, I can’t just keep talking”. Their viewpoint is understandable. But why are we forcing the interaction? Maybe some people learn more effectively by relaxing and just listening?  There are other innovative ways to design sessions to make them interesting without the need to force people to interact, e.g., the use of videos, polls, and discussions by facilitators.  But I hear you say, “aren’t you just describing introverts!”  Why change the way we work for a small minority of people?  Well, let us take a closer look at introversion.

The introversion-extraversion dimension is central to leading trait theories of human personality in psychology2, and forms the cornerstone of the Myer-Briggs personality types3 and the big five framework4, an accepted model for conceptualising the structure of personality. Extraversion-introversion is seen as part of a single, continuous dimension of personality, rather than mutually exclusive.  Thus, there is a spectrum of sociability, with true extroverts on one end, defined as a typically gregarious and unreserved person who enjoys and seeks out social interaction5, and true introverts at the opposite end. Introverts are defined as a typically reserved person who tends to enjoy spending time alone6. Both terms were originally coined By Carl Jung7. Identifying introversion and extraversion as two contemporary groupings of “nervous diseases”8.  Later describing a third type, concluding that the group was “the most numerous and includes the less differentiated normal man9.  The term ‘ambivert’ has been used to describe this group of people10.  It has been suggested that introverts make up to 50% of the population11 and up to 90% in subpopulations12.

Social anxiety

Social anxiety disorder was formally recognised in 196513.  It includes fears relating to a wide range of situations, such as meeting new people, talking in meetings, public speaking, working while being observed, small groups, parties, and performance situations14. It presents as a persistent fear of one or more social situations where embarrassment may occur15. Social anxiety disorder has a prevalence rate of up to 12% making it one of the most common anxiety disorders14. With an increased prevalence in women and black and ethnic minority groups14.

As previously discussed, anxiety about some social activities is prevalent in the general population.  However, people with social anxiety disorder tend to worry excessively about them in anticipation of the social situation. People with social anxiety disorder will attempt to avoid their most feared situations. Where this is not feasible, they will then endure the situation, often with feelings of intense distress15.

Generational impact

Anxiety, in general, is reported to be more prevalent in Generation Z, also known as IGen (born between 2000 and 2013) with a prevalence rate of 70% amongst teenagers16 and Generation Alpha (born after 2013)17. The COVID-19 pandemic may well have added to social anxiety, particularly for generation Z18. Thus, it has been suggested that this workforce of the future will have excellent digital literacy but impaired social formation due to increased screentime19, with suggestions that they may prefer the virtual world more than the physical world. Leading to an unprecedented rise in creativity, education and self-care with Generation Alpha spending more time exploring their passion, prioritising mental wellness, and seeking education for the simple joy of learning20.

Re-considering the way we work

The suggestion that extroverts are not the majority, the social anxiety experienced by Generation Z and the suggested make-up of our future workforce should make us reconsider the ways in which we are designing and delivering workplace meetings and training. It’s time to consider whether the work activities we plan, fit with the team/people we are leading.  Do they allow people to relax and thrive? Say “team-building exercise” to your team and watch them recoil.  We are aware of the social anxiety elicited by such activities; we need to re-consider how they are delivered.

It’s worth considering how many people have decided not to take part in a training session due to the fear of having to talk in front of others or because of the traditional format of forced interaction. This is a barrier to staff development and needs re-thinking. I hear you say, “if you want to progress you need to learn these skills of social interaction and communication”. This line of thinking leads to the stereotype of leaders and people in senior positions being overly confident and extroverted. It can lead to people who are quieter and reserved believing they don’t have the necessary attributes to become a leader. This isn’t true. Communication and leadership have many facets.  It involves being a good listener, thinking and reflecting, and allowing other people to shine. It has been suggested that listening is the most important attribute of a good leader. It is a complex and nuanced skill. Yet, at every opportunity we insist people talk, interact, get involved, believing that this will produce the best results.  Research has demonstrated that extroverts aren’t as successful in the stereotypical roles we would expect such a personality to thrive in, partly due to spending too much time talking and not enough time listening21.

It is time to create learning environments and team meetings where all staff feel relaxed and heard.  Allowing them to feel included and to ultimately thrive.  Let us be innovative and provide different ways for staff to participate.

If this article resonates with you, please contact [email protected] and , we would love to hear about your experiences.



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