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The Science of Introverts and the Workplace

The Science of Introverts and the Workplace

In the year since Susan Cain published “Quiet,” several other bestselling business authors have joined her effort to weed from that genre the “extrovert ideal”—the bold, outspoken personality type that many self-help books idolize. That ideal, Cain says, took root in organizations in the 20th century and has since hurt the way we identify leaders, award promotions and even structure our meetings. Cain spoke with Lillian Cunningham, editor of the Washington Post’s “On Leadership” section, about what it would look like to cultivate the assets that introverts bring to the workplace:

Q. How have you seen the extrovert ideal play out in corporate America?

A. It permeates every aspect of our corporate life and culture. Everything from how we structure our offices to how we expect people to be creative to whom we groom for leadership positions.

The vast majority of employees work in open-plan offices, where you’re in a big open room with other people. There are economic reasons for setting up offices this way, but the theory is that it’s said to produce greater collaboration and greater creativity. For many introverts, in particular, this is a really uncomfortable way to work. It’s an incredibly overstimulating environment, where it’s hard to concentrate.

Ironically, it’s not really much better for extroverts. There are lots of deleterious effects of these open-plan offices. They impair people from concentrating, they make people physically ill—literally, because there are so many germs floating around—and then the greatest paradox of all is that they actually prevent people from forming close friendships. If you think about it, the way that you start a friendship with somebody is that you exchange confidences. That’s the currency you offer as a friendship forms. If you’re in a big, open office and you feel like you can be overheard, you’re less likely to have intimate relationships with people.

Q. And in terms of creativity and leadership grooming? 

A. We live with this value system that I call the new groupthink, which holds that creativity and productivity come from a very gregarious place. When we want people to come up with a new idea, we tend to call a meeting. But again, this is especially bad for introverts, because it’s not the way introverts like to be creative. They tend to prefer to go off by themselves to think, rather than thinking out loud.

And as with open-plan offices, it doesn’t work that well for extroverts either, because extroverts too do better when they have some solitary time to think. We know from 40 years of research into brainstorming that individuals who brainstorm by themselves produce more ideas and better ideas than groups of people brainstorming together. And yet, we structure our workplaces increasingly around group activities.

When it comes to leadership, extroverts are much more likely to be recognized early for leadership abilities, and then brought up the ranks. This is really a shame, because although introverts don’t at first blush have the qualities we associate with leadership, research that came out of the Wharton School by Adam Grant shows that introverted leaders often produce better outcomes than extroverts do.

When introverted leaders are managing proactive employees, they’re more likely than extroverts to let those employees run with their ideas and really implement them. Whereas extroverts are more likely to want to put their own stamp on things and don’t hear other people’s ideas as much. Extroverted leaders do better when you need charisma and a rousing call to arms.

The bottom line is that we need both styles of leadership, but what we’re doing in general is training just the extroverts and not the introverts.

Q. Solutions to these problems likely lie with company management, or with some larger cultural shifts we need to make. So in the meantime, what advice would you give introverts who need to go to work every day in that environment?

A. On the one hand, you need to develop the skills to act in a more extroverted way. It’s fine to do that, as long as you’re not doing it all the time. Extroverts need to do that also—they sometimes need to act more introverted than they really are.

On the other hand, it’s really a question of how to draw on your own natural strengths. So for example, Douglas Conant, who was the CEO of Campbell Soup, describes himself as shy and introverted. He was well known for identifying employees who had really contributed, and he would sit down and write letters of thanks. During the time he was at Campbell, he wrote 30,000 of these letters—an astounding number, and something no extrovert would do. It had profound impact. People really felt connected to him and recognized by him.

Q. Harnessing introversion when you’re CEO is one thing, but how do you even get to a top position if your greatest skills tend to be the ones that superiors don’t notice? 

A. I think successful introverts do find ways to be recognized for the substantive value they add. Larry Page is an introvert, and he’s the cofounder and now CEO of Google. People talk about him not having the classic personality of a CEO, but people do realize that the strategic thinking he brings to the company is something real and not to be discounted.

That said, most introverted leaders will tell you that they coach themselves to do things outside their comfort zone. They do things like set personal daily quotas for how many times a day they leave their office and walk through the hallways of the company. There was one CEO who had to remind himself when walking down the hallway to make eye contact and greet people, because his natural inclination would be to walk lost in thought, solving some problem. But he realized people thought he was being aloof and dismissive of them.

All of these leaders will tell you they’ve had to make adjustments. Many have told me that they’ve have to grow more comfortable with public speaking, that’s a very common one. All of it is pushing yourself a bit outside of your comfort zone. The successful ones are doing this in the service of something they really care about. For example, Marissa Mayer has talked about how she’s actually a shy and introverted person, but she cares so much about what she’s doing and really loves the substance of it that she acts in ways that are not classically introverted.

Q. Any practical advice for introverts who dread public speaking and big presentations?

A. The key to overcoming really any fear is what’s called desensitization—which is a fancy way of saying, to practice over and over doing the thing you fear. You practice it in very small, manageable steps so that your anxiety level is never out of control.

Very often when people have these kind of fears, they tend naturally to just avoid them as much as possible until the day comes when they can’t avoid them. Then all of a sudden they have to make a presentation to thousands of shareholders. They have to do the thing they’re dreading, and in a very high-stakes situation. That’s the wrong way to approach it. It should be that by the time you’re talking to thousands of people, you’ve already had countless experiences talking to ten people.

Q. What motivated your research? 

A. I believe introverts today are where women were in the 1950s and 1960s, when people first started to write about the women’s revolution and some of those books really touched a huge national nerve. They surfaced things that women felt but couldn’t totally articulate, and suddenly it gave people a socially acceptable way to talk about things that had been bothering them at a very fundamental level. The women’s movement was in everybody’s interest, because when women’s lives are fully realized, that benefits companies and society at large.

By analogy, everything I said about women is true of introverts as well. I think the reason people have reacted to my book the way they did is because it provides a socially acceptable voice for talking about things that really bother people. And more exciting is what it will mean for society when we really value the way introverts think and contribute, and when we really have things set up so that they’re creating and contributing at their maximum potential.

Lillian Cunninghman/The Washington Post