Introverts strike back

The ideal in the business world, especially for corporate leaders, has been the glad-handing extrovert.  Consequently, private offices have given way to open cubicles so that everyone can mix and collaborate, even though that seldom happens.  Also, everyone has to go to brainstorming meetings, even though research has shown that the best ideas come not from groups but from individuals thinking alone.  But now a new appreciation for introverts in the workplace and in leadership positions is emerging.

Susan Cain has written a book on the subject:  Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  After the jump, an interview with her about her findings.

From The science of introverts and the workplace in the Washington Post:

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 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.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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