Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. You may have heard of it, as it came out in January 2012. A family member thought I might like it, so lent me a copy to read, and, coincidentally, just yesterday I noticed the paperback version at my local Costco.
The author, herself an introvert, examines the rise of what she calls the Extrovert Ideal, questions the thinking that has made extroversion such a valued business quality, and shares the stories of one successful introvert after the next -- from Rosa Parks to Steve Wozniak. The book is chockful of history, psychology, and neuroscience, an interesting cultural exploration of these personality traits.
Defining the traits
As Cain points out, you won't find a standard definition of introversion and extroversion, as personality psychologists all bring their own perspectives to bear in defining these sorts. A good starting place for understanding the difference is with the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who popularized the terms "introvert" and "extrovert" with his 1921 tome, Psychological Types. Jung theorized that introverts tend to look inward to their own thoughts and feelings while extroverts direct their attention outward to other people and external activities. Introverts are often shy, though shyness and introversion are not one and the same. They tend to be contemplative and reserved, especially in contrast to the stereotypical aggressive, outgoing, social animal known as the extrovert.
Notice my repeated use of the word "tend" in that preceding paragraph. This is not black and white. Some introverts will be capable of acting as if they're extroverts when charged with responsibilities such as leading a roundtable discussion, delivering a keynote address, conveying the results of an analytics project to business leaders, and other outward-facing activities. Introverts, in other words, aren't incapable of doing well in the business world that demands they be extroverted -- it's just neither their natural inclination nor their preference.
Adapting to the extrovert value
But introverts who want to get someplace in business must play by the extrovert's rules. As Cain states in her introductory remarks, "The pressure to entertain, to sell ourselves, and never to be visibly anxious keeps ratcheting up." In fact, she goes on to explain:
- The most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), the psychiatrist's bible of mental disorders, considers the fear of public speaking to be a pathology -- not an annoyance, not a disadvantage, but a disease -- if it interferes with the sufferer's job performance.
The anecdote she uses to place this in a business context is one to which most any introverted analytics professional could relate.
- "It's not enough," one senior manager at Eastman Kodak told the author Daniel Goleman, "to be able to sit at your computer excited about a fantastic regression analysis if you're squeamish about presenting those results to an executive group." (Apparently it's OK to be squeamish about doing a regression analysis if you're excited about giving speeches.)
Today we tell analytics professionals that the difference between good and great centers on their ability to tell people about the data and the secrets they've discovered within it. But, as Cain's research has shown, the ability to tell a nice story doesn't correlate with greater insight, intelligence, or analytical prowess. So, I have to wonder, is it possible that some of the people who are of greater value to a company, because they can get to that desired insight, are the ones shunted off to the sidelines on projects, have their input dismissed as a matter of course, or perhaps are even let go or moved out of the analytics group simply because they are introverts not interested in self-aggrandizement?
As "one highly successful venture capitalist" told Cain:
- "It's so easy to confuse schmoozing ability with talent. Someone seems like a good presenter, easy to get along with, and those traits are rewarded. Well, why is that? They're valuable traits, but we put too much of a premium on presenting and not enough on substance and critical thinking."
Let's not delude ourselves -- the business world is not going to do an about-face and start exalting introversion over extroversion. But what Cain has attempted in Quiet is to wake everybody up to the fact that more people than you might expect are introverts. This is especially important for managers to remember, she suggests, as "one third to one half of your workforce is probably introverted, whether they appear that way or not." A smart manager will play to their strengths -- "these are the people who can help you think deeply, strategize, solve complex problems, and spot canaries in your coal mine" -- rather than continuously thrusting them in uncomfortable situations, be that open office plans, birthday lunches, or team-building outings.
Likewise, she says, let their creativity shine through solo problem-solving or by gathering ideas electronically rather than in a group exercise that plays to the extroverts in the crowd.
And, for the introverts themselves, Cain gets a bit of touchy-feely with her advice, but it's still solid:
- Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it. If this requires public speaking or networking or other activities that make you uncomfortable, do them anyway. But accept that they're difficult, get the training you need to make them easier, and reward yourself when you're done.
Readers, I'd love to know whether you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert, and how that plays out for you at work. Take our latest Quick Poll, "Personality Test," at right, and share your experiences on the comment board. And, in case you're not quite sure where you fit on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, jump to the next page for a quick self-assessment.
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