Betwixt & Between

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Are introverts better at partnership brokering?

Exploring brokering skills across the introvert-extrovert continuum


This article raises the question of whether it matters if a partnership broker is introverted or extroverted[1], [2]. A recent public discussion about Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ has highlighted the importance of recognising one’s temperament in any professional field. I am applying this notion to the field of partnership brokers – is it indeed true that there is an expectation nowadays that brokers should be talkative extroverts? This article also explores the question of whether it makes sense to distinguish between extrovert and introvert brokers, as the personal assets they bring to the partnering process are very different. I will illustrate this by using examples from my own partnering practice. The article closes with some tips and recommendations, specifically for introverts but also useful to take into account by others who are involved in (designing) partnership brokering activities.

Let’s start with two examples.

Imagine you are working with a cross-sector team to develop a partnership, and you as the partnership broker see that there is no clarity about the vision of the partnership and inactivity sets in. Since you have been involved for several years representing one of the main partners and are worried that it may fall apart, you take charge and lead the team in restating the vision. It feels like the proper thing to do, and fits well within the ToR set for your brokering assignment. To your surprise you learn that two weeks later one of the partners opts out of the partnership, because ‘it is dominated by people who are just interested to push their interest’.

Or imagine you are working to support a partnership of organisations by providing services on the background. Two other visionary leaders are at the forefront, articulating the vision and representing the partnership to the outside world. They do the talking, you do the legwork behind the scenes. One day, both dynamic leaders are out of the country and you need to step in to fulfill their roles. You do so, but feel inadequate and appeal to others in the steering group to contribute, to which they oblige. Some months later, people describe the period in which you were in charge as a critical phase in which the team got transformed to take joint responsibility for affairs, which led the partnership to enlarge its ambitions and take important steps towards achieving these. Despite your quiet tone of voice and lack of dominance the partnership got stronger.

The first example shows a typical extrovert at work, the second example an introvert. Both examples come from my experience and observations at CDI. These examples are not meant to convey that introverts do better. But be honest: when you think of a partnership broker, what personality type comes to mind first? Quite likely that it is a verbally strong outgoing charismatic networker, leader or facilitator. Someone who can think on his/her feet and be ‘out there’, involved in the action. But in practice, many partnership brokers are unlike such an extrovert prototype, and display more of the attributes of the second example: typically introverted. Often with success.


A media storm about her recent book ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ has taken Susan Cain by surprise. Being in the center of attention is uncomfortable for an introvert like Susan Cain – yet talking about her book has lately become an important task for her. It shows how the topic of her book has hit a nerve somewhere: in the Western world, success seems to be defined in extrovert terms. One has to be outgoing in groups of people, prefer action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, and certainty to doubt, if you are to be considered successful. Cain spots this trend in popular culture, media, the education system, and professional settings. Introverts prefer to operate out of the spotlight and prefer to recharge in solitude. Cain defines the difference between introversion and extroversion as a different preference in responding to (social) stimulation. Extroverts crave a large amount of stimulation, introverts feel most alive and switched on in a low-key environment. Extrovert professionals who are outgoing and verbally dominant seem to have become the norm – as if introversion is “a second class personality trait, something in between a disappointment and a pathology”[3]. Yet introverts are often great at facilitating understanding among diverse groups of people, and bringing in innovative thinking.

Cain’s book is a plea for recognition of the contribution that introverts can make: ‘groups famously follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas’, based on her review of studies in social- and personality psychology and business studies.

Typical introvert attributes:Reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned Typical extrovert attributes:Active, ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, comfortable in the spotlight

From: Cain (2012:269)

It is not my intention to introduce the introvert/extravert spectrum as a new way of labeling partnership brokers, or to force anybody into one of these two temperaments. In fact, you might just as well be in the middle of the continuum, combining intro- and extrovert aspects in your way of operating. There is even a name for this: ambiverts. Still it is worthwhile to see whether this angle can shed new light on skills required for partnering.

A quiet partnership broker at work

The argument of Susan Cain rang a bell with me. As a typical introvert I enjoy dwelling in the realm of ideas and the inner world, and I need down-time for reflection in order to deliver best in groups and in visible, action roles. Three years ago I took on a job as a consultant/facilitator at a university-based group, not realising that it required operating in an extraverted modus for substantial parts of my time. In previous jobs, I would help design a workshop and hire a consultant to run it. In my current job, I am the one in the spotlight. I started off by feeling a bit jealous of my extravert, outgoing new colleagues who would naturally engage new clients, lead seminars, and think innovatively on their feet. Gradually I developed the skills needed for more extravert roles required in my work. This does not make me an extravert – my inclination still is to draw energy from thought and ideas, rather than from action. But I like to believe that I may have shifted a bit towards the middle of the I/E continuum in my professional behavior. I still do recharge in solitude, but am able to assert myself in extravert ways if the situation demands it. I may have changed from an unconfident introvert to a confident introvert. Being confident helps in adapting to different situations, and adopting new and unfamiliar roles.

I tried to test this out a couple of months back. I was brokering a new partnership between a network that I represent, and an NGO in Africa. After a successful and energising joint workshop which we organised as a first activity, things slowed down and communication became infrequent. My usual and preferred style had been to make kind enquiries, referring to agreements we made and deadlines for products we have agreed upon. It didn’t work this time. I got no response to my gentle and polite emails and phone calls. Though I was in my comfort zone – it was not effective. In this phase of building the partnership, a more extrovert quality was needed: being action oriented, seeking to build breadth of knowledge and influence, and putting more effort into frequent interactions. In previous contacts in this partnership there had been other colleagues who took on these roles – but now I was on my own.

I asked myself the favorite facilitation question: ‘What’s needed now?’ and came to the conclusion that a type of visionary leadership was now required. We needed to remember and re-state the vision behind this partnership, recognise that we had not lived up to it so far, and rejuvenate ourselves to give it our very best again. I struggled with this. I am not the person to talk about grand visions – I’d rather make them happen. But I gave it my best try and came up with a passionate plea of the initial vision of the partnership, and the potential benefits which were going to be just round the corner. To my surprise the response exceeded my expectations. Not only did I get a reply – it came from the very top decision makers, with a clear buy-in to the vision I had described. Even better, a proposal was made not only to get back to work on our agreed products, but also to develop a partnering agreement soon. This had been an idea I had proposed earlier – but the difference was that now it came from their side. And the bonus was that in the process, I had expanded my repertoire of partnership brokering skills.

Introverted partnership brokers and the Partnering Cycle

Let’s see what is expected from partnership brokers and what the implications are for being introvert or extrovert. The Brokering Guidebook[4] outlines 4 broad phases in a partnering cycle and the changing roles which brokers have. I have taken these four phases/roles and have added a column to the right, elaborating on implications for typical introverts.

Partnering Cycle Phase Brokers Task Implications for Introverts
1. Scoping & Building
  • Scoping & convening
  • Partner identification
  • Relationship building


  • Introverts are likely to perform strongly in the research and exploration mode.
  • For convening meetings and requesting resources, they prefer to draw in senior leaders/champions.
  • Introverts tend to anticipate dilemmas early on, and they often design in such a way that relationships are built and conflicts can be avoided.
  • Introverts may stick too long in 1-to-1 relationships while it is also important to engage broader groups of people in workshops, to build support for the partnership.
  • Introverts are at risk of going too deep into the ideas and issues at this stage, preventing the breadth needed for the partnership to gain momentum.


2. Managing & Maintaining
  • Resource mapping
  • Communications
  • Ensuring good governance


  • Introverts will by default be affirming to contributions made by partners/supporters of the partnership. This is likely to increase ownership of partners of the implementation of the partnership.
  • Introverts will naturally develop the communication strategy and governance systems.
  • Introverts may prefer not to be the spokesperson for the partnership, rather letting this be done by others. However, when put on the spot they often deliver well.


3. Reviewing & Revising
  • Advising on monitoring
  • Advising on reviewing
  • Implementing revisions
  • Introverts feel fully alive when they are expected to create depth of knowledge, rather than breadth. Asking reflective monitoring questions like ‘how are we performing?’ and ‘how can we do this better next time?’ sit well with introverts.


4. Closing, Renegotiating & Sustaining
  • Managing closure
  • Facilitating renegotiation
  • Advising on new mechanisms
  • Exiting usually requires changes in relationships.  Loyal introverts are at risk of hanging on too long to existing relationships and prevent emergence of new combinations of relationships.
  • Introverts deal well with the strategic fore sighting required when moving on.

The Brokering Guidebook is quite explicit about the special mix of skills and personality traits demanded by partnership brokering. Without mentioning the terms introversion or extroversion, it seems to underline the type of attributes which introverts are often known to be good at: being modest, creation of clarity, and facilitation of productive interaction between diverse groups of people. However, I am not ready to draw the conclusion that introverts generally make better partnership brokers, as Ros Tennyson does[5]. There are many situations in the partnering cycle which demand actions and the type of leadership usually found with extraverts. In my example, I was busy in the Scoping and Building phase, and had to stretch myself out of my introvert comfort zone to deliver what was needed then.

I shared this question with other partnership brokers on LinkedIn[6], and received helpful responses from several peers. Their comments helped me to understand that the I/E continuum is helpful, but cannot be the only criterion for judging a brokers quality. As one peer offered: “It comes down to integrity, passion, sincerity, understanding of purpose, needs and desired outcomes, and being able to navigate the dynamics and historical implications of the organisations or individuals involved. I have experienced both introversion and extroversion in my dealings with partnerships. There are roles for both. Without leaders that express the characteristics above, partnerships and potential partnerships are eroded”. This goes well beyond being introvert or extrovert.

Also, in real life we see professionals switching roles/attitudes depending on the requirements of the context. Introvert as well as extrovert partnership brokers will need to learn to become fluid and competent in switching between the two, as described by another peer: “In brokering, we have to tap into both types of attitudes. At times, be an ‘extrovert’ – whereas the definition says, extroverted attitude means focusing on behavior, action, people, and objects; and at other times be an ‘introvert’, adopting an introverted attitude to work on ideas, concepts and reflection. Focusing just on one or the other is inefficient – either the relationships or the processes will suffer”.

Brokers are also advised to consider their own preference vis-a-vis the type of organisation they are working with. Andrew Acland and Ros Tennyson point out what brokers may particularly need to remember when building partnerships in the following table[7]:

  Introvert organisation: weakness is being too inward-looking Extravert organisation: weakness is overlooking less extravert members
Introvert broker Chief danger is building a too cosy and passive partnership focused on internal relationships: invest time in looking outwards and at practical actions Danger is relying too much on safe 1-to-1 relationships: invest time in wider workshops to build buy-in and generate momentum
Extravert broker Danger is relying too heavily on workshops and focusing too much on action: invest in conceptual buy-in and personal relationships Danger is overlooking needs and ideas of less extravert individuals: invest time with quieter people who may also be in positions of influence

All these reflections confirm to me that introvert brokers have assets that are of great value to partnerships. The recognition that various styles of brokering all have a place is reassuring. It helps me to understand and accept that I can develop my own style and build on my strengths as an introvert to become a better partnership broker. It also helps me see that different contexts call for different styles of brokering, and to be aware of my own limitations. As Principles of Partnership Brokering Good Practice number 7 states: “Know one’s own competence limitations and the circumstances in which it is appropriate to request assistance from, or hand over brokering responsibility to, others”. But as my example shows, sometimes there is nobody to hand over to. In these situations it is crucial that brokers dare to experiment with new competences, perhaps outside of their comfort zone. I tried this with my ‘visionary leadership’ intervention, and it worked and I felt happy that I had challenged myself to take a next step which was needed at that time in the partnership. And it indicated that one can grow in becoming more of an ‘adaptive broker’ – switching styles as and when needed.

What can partnership brokers do to become more effective?

Given the previous discussion on the pros and cons of introverts and extroverts in partnership brokering, as well as my personal experience in becoming a better broker, there are at least three types of strategies to increase effectiveness: self-awareness; broadening repertoire; and understanding the context.

1. Know yourself. We need partnership brokers to be self-aware of their temperament so that they know in which environments they flourish, and why. Knowing how to recharge will also help brokers to perform well, care for oneself and avoid exhaustion.

2. We also should stimulate brokers to experiment with broadening their repertoire – as introverts and extroverts can learn to become effective in other places than their ‘favorite worlds’. This requires courage, creativity, and feedback from others.

3. Thirdly, brokers would do well to understand the context in which they operate, and know their own limitations. This implies getting experienced in reading contexts and anticipating what is going to be needed in terms of partnership brokering competences. If you are an introvert and are aware that your partnership requires interventions you are not comfortable to offer, you should look for others to deliver these interventions. In line with Principle 7 mentioned above, a strategy can be to team up with others who can complement your temperament in the partnering process.

Six tips for partnership brokering across the I/E continuum

1)   Explain to partners (businesses, civil society, public sector) in more detail the wide range of partnership brokering styles and attitudes which are represented in the professional field.

2)   Clarify to introverts that partnership brokering is not necessarily about showing extrovert behaviours (sociable, networking, outgoing, action-oriented) in order to not mislead  them away from this professional field. This is also important to prevent the loss which would come from the partnership brokering community developing a bias towards extrovert ways of thinking and acting.

3)   Stress that I and E are not fixed positions, but that many nuances and mid-way positions exist on this continuum. This implies that introverts can experiment with and acquire other partnership brokering styles, including styles that are commonly associated with being extrovert. For both introverts and extroverts to master a diverse repertoire of intervention tools and styles, and to know when to use it, enriches a partnership brokers’ options to contribute effectively to partnerships.

4)   Stress the need for ‘partnership brokering teams’ which include partnership brokers with diverse skills and temperaments, depending on the need and phase of the partnership. At CDI we often work with teams of 2 or 3 consultants, even on relatively small assignments. This provides continuity (as many of us are travelling regularly) but also allows us to offer clients a wider range of skills than only one person can offer.

5)   Expanding the repertoire which partnership brokers can use, and ensure that it includes methods to get the best out of introvert participants. This can include building in individual reflective exercises in group meetings and less dependence on group brainstorms for idea formation or decision making.

6)   Emphasise that although partnerships are mostly about teamwork, it is essential for introverts to seek spaces in solitude in order to come with good solutions. Teamwork is not the same as ‘design by committee’; rather it allows everybody to generate their own ideas freed from the distortions of group dynamics, and then come together as a team to talk ideas through in a well-managed environment and take it from there. This increases the chances for balanced input from both introverts and extroverts to develop the partnership.


If you happen to be an introvert person in a partnership brokering role – like myself – I hope that you have understood from the above that you have an asset.

I have argued that introverts are often undervalued in professional fields. My inquiry in the field of partnering skills leads me to conclude that there is generally more appreciation for introvert qualities than Susan Cain’s book suggests. Still, it is critical that partnership brokers are aware of their own preferences, and that partnership brokers know the implications of being introvert or extrovert for partnerships.

Raising levels of self-awareness requires more than exploring the introvert-extrovert spectrum. In fact, the Myers Briggs personality typologies might offer a broader perspective to help partnership brokers, as it works with four spectrums rather than one. I leave this as an invitation for others to explore further.

Another invitation is whether Cains analysis – largely based on the Western world – holds true for other cultural settings, and what the implications are for brokering partnerships across cultures. I would be interested to hear the experiences of other partnership brokers in this regard.

For myself – I have no doubt that I will continue to be an introvert. But my experience taught me that one does not need to be fixed into a stereotypical role as introvert. It is indeed possible to shift along the continuum and, in time, become more all-round as a partnership broker. And if that does not happen (fast enough), it is also OK to ask others to complement your efforts.



herman brouwerHerman Brouwer is Advisor on Multi-Stakeholder Processes at the Centre for Development Innovation of Wageningen University & Research, the Netherlands. Herman works across sectors as a policy advisor, facilitator and trainer to enable clients to collaborate more effectively for sustainable development. His current work is mainly in the sectors of food security and natural resource management, where he applies principles of stakeholder engagement, partnership brokering, and action learning. Herman is an Accredited Partnership Broker and is active in PBA’s Learning Community of Practice.

[1] In this article I use Susan Cains definition of introversion/extroversion as ‘a difference of preference in responding to (social) stimulation’. I also use the widely accepted descriptions which are part of Myers Briggs personality types, eg. I have treated ‘extraversion’ and ‘extroversion’ as meaning the same.

[2]I wish to thank Joanne Burke, my mentor for PBAS Level 2, for her contributions to my journey resulting in this article.

[3] By Susan Cain ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’, p4

[4] By Ros Tennyson, page 60.

[5] Ros Tennyson, personal communication, August 2012


[7] Unpublished handout by Andrew Acland/Ros Tennyson, 2011

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