PMean: What problems does introversion cause for a statistical consultant?

Someone posed an interesting question on the Statistics Consulting message board of the American Statistical Association. To paraphrase, her question was what sort of difficulties would an introvert have in statistical consulting and how do you teach those introverted consultants to overcome those problems. Here’s what I wrote.

I would strongly recommend the book (already mentioned by another person), Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, by Susan Cain because, among other things, she distinguishes between two closely related concepts, introversion and shyness. A shy person is actually fearful of many social encounters. The way to overcome shyness is to slowly put yourself in places which you find fearful, but in small doses. Do this repeatedly until you start to desensitize yourself. You never eliminate your fear of social encounters, but you do learn how to cope with your fear.

An introvert is someone who is not fearful of social encounters. Introverts just prefer to socialize with people they already know well or only in small groups. They enjoy parties more if they can find a single person on the periphery to have a quiet talk with rather than being in the middle of everything with people talking all around them. Introverts also are people who like thinking quietly about a problem by themselves more than talking about the problem in a group. Another key characteristic of introverts is that they struggle with “small talk.”

Most everyone who has a graduate degree, especially in a field like Statistics, probably has something of an introvert in them. But it’s a question of degree. I personally enjoy splitting my time between meeting with people in a consulting environment for half of the day and working on data analyses by myself for the other half of the day. I’d go nuts if my whole day was meeting after meeting after meeting. I’d also go nuts if my whole day was trapped by myself in front of a computer. So consulting is an ideal choice for someone who does not want an extremely extroverted role or an extremely introverted role.

Like many introverts, I tend to enjoy talking when it is about something structured rather than idle chitchat, which makes consulting a good fit for me. If you’re an introvert, you’ll find your consulting session to be easier if you have something prepared in advance. That’s impossible for the first meeting, of course, but something that you can strive for in all your subsequent meetings.

But I am something of an extrovert in that I like people to be with me when I’m running most data analyses (the very important ones), so that I can think out loud with them about what the analysis is saying and what the next steps should be. I think that some of my clients sometimes find this tedious, and I don’t make them sit through the data management parts. Some of my clients, though, seem to like watching the data analyses live and they watch intently enough that they can often catch mistakes in my logic. This give and take and back and forth makes for a more productive analysis than if I closed my door, ran all my analyses, and then handed them to the client on a silver platter.

Another interesting insight from Susan Cain’s book is that an extrovert is someone who comes up with a fast answer and projects self assurance. Surely this is important for a consultant. I don’t know about you, but many of my clients are very insecure about Statistics, and they like someone who can give them an answer on the spot and be confident about it. But introverts are great observers and often more skilled at asking insightful questions. Surely this is just as important for a consultant.

Both sides also have their weaknesses. Introverts cannot afford to be wishy washy in their recommendations. I’ve heard a lot of criticisms of some of my consulting colleagues that they can’t seem to make up their mind about a problem and it takes forever to get a definitive answer out of them. This is the classic introvert problem. Another problem with introverts is that they seem to be unwilling to offer an opinion about a question that is only peripherally related to statistics. This leads to a rather narrow view of statisticians as technicians. One reason that statisticians do not find themselves often enough in leadership roles is that they are too likely to take the introverted path. Some of the most effective statisticians that I know have attained their positions of authority because of their natural gregarious extroverted nature.

The weakness of extroverts is that they tend to “shoot from the hip” and offer a solution before really thinking through the problem carefully. Extroverts are also ones who tend to ignore the advice and opinions of others. They’re great talkers, but not so good at listening.

These are stereotypes, of course, but stereotypes are often helpful if they are not taken too literally. My opinion is that in any business setting, not just consulting, it helps to be able to swing into an extroverted role or into an introverted role whichever is needed for the problem at hand. Neither a pure introvert nor a pure extrovert is likely to be a successful consultant.