The Hidden Power of Introverts

This month I was offered the opportunity to take part in Patheos’ book club. I am reviewing Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. It might initially seem like this book has little to do with the topics I regularly write about, but on further reflection I began to see some connections. And even beyond that, the book is simply fascinating.

Cain outlines the history of what she calls “the extrovert ideal” and seeks to show that the potential and gifts of introverts has been long ignored. She brings together studies, anecdotes from her experience teaching negotiating skills, and personal stories from attending motivational speaker Tony Robbins’ conferences and conducting interviews to create a fascinating and engrossing book.

Extroverts are outward-oriented; introverts are inward-oriented. Extroverts are the ones who are energized by contact with other people; introverts are energized by solitude. Cain’s basic thesis is that we in the United States have glorified extroversion while treating introversion as something to be overcome. But as Cain points out, introversion is not the same as shyness or being misanthropic. And, as Cain points out, introverts possess some important gifts.

Here is a fascinating excerpt from page 57:

Grant’s team divided 163 college students into competing teams charged with folding as many T-shirts as possible in ten minutes. Unbeknownst to the participants, each team included two actors. In some teams, the two actors acted passively, following the leaders’ instructions. In other teams, one of the actors said, “I wonder if there’s a more efficient way to do this.” The other actor replied that he had a friend from Japan who had a faster way to fold shirts. “It might take a minute or two to teach you,” the actor told the leader, “but do we want to try it?”

The results were striking. The introverted leaders were 20 percent more likely to follow the suggestion — and their teams had 24 percent better results than the teams of extroverted leaders. When the followers were not proactive, though — when they simply did as the leader instructed without suggesting their own shirt-folding methods — the teams led by extroverts outperformed those led by introverts by 22 percent.

Why did these leaders’ effectiveness turn on whether their employers were passive or proactive? Grant says it makes sense that introverts were uniquely good at leading initiative takers. Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions. Having benefited from the talents of their followers, they are then likely to motivate them to be even more proactive. Introverted leaders create a virtuous circle of proactivity, in other words. In the T-shirt-folding study, the team members reported perceiving the introverted leaders as more open and receptive to their ideas, which motivated them to work harder and to fold more shirts.

Extroverts, on the other hand, can be so intent on putting their own stamp on events that they risk losing others’ good ideas along the way an allowing workers to lapse into passivity. “Often the leaders end up doing a lot of the talking,” says Francesca Gino, “and not listening to any of the ideas that the followers are trying to provide.” But with their natural ability to inspire, extroverted leaders are better at getting results from more passive workers.

Cain’s purpose is not to argue that introverts are better than extroverts, but rather that our culture overvalues extroverts at the expense of introverts.

In one especially fascinating section, Cain looks at evangelicalism, Rick Warren, and Saddleback Church. She does so through an interview with Adam McHugh, a local evangelical pastor who is “an avowed introvert.”

“The evangelical culture ties together faithfulness with extroversion,” McHugh explained. “The emphasis is on community, on participating in more and more programs and events, on meeting more and more people. It’s a constant tension for many introverts that they’re not living that out. And in a religious world, there’s more at stake when you feel that tension. It doesn’t feel like ‘I’m not doing as well as I’d like.’ It feels like ‘God isn’t pleased with me.’”

From outside the evangelical community, this seems an astonishing confession. Since when is solitude one of the Seven Deadly Sins? But to a fellow evangelical, HcHugh’s sense of spiritual failure would make perfect sense. …

Evangelicalism has taken the Extrovert Ideal to its logical extreme, McHugh is telling us. If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love. It’s not enough to forge your own spiritual connection with the divine; it must be displayed publicly. Is it any wonder that introverts like Pastor McHugh start to question their own hearts?

Cain details her experience visiting Saddleback, and what she calls the “culture of personality.” She even compares the service to what she saw visiting Tony Robbins’ “Unleash the Power Within” seminars and discusses what she calls “the myth of charismatic leadership.” Interestingly, the very extroverted nature of evangelicalism helps explain some of the salvation anxiety I discussed yesterday. Also, given the role charismatic authoritarian leadership so often plays in religion, I think a greater appreciation of the potential downsides of extroversion and upsides of introversion can only be positive.

This whole extrovert/introvert discussion is also interesting when considered in light of conversations within the atheist blogosphere regarding how to approach dialogue with the religious – and especially whether to use a “harsher” or “gentler” approach in doing so. There are benefits to charismatic leadership’s ability to inspire, but there are also limitations. Introverts hold their own power, a power grounded in the ability to listen to others and influence and lead from behind. I don’t know exactly where all that leaves us, but I find the discussion fascinating and, I think, potentially productive.

Cain also has a chapter on the cultural differences in the value placed on extroversion and introversion, and one on raising introverted children. Her conclusion is that we need to not undervalue introverts and what they have to offer. I highly recommend Cain’s book, which is a goldmine of fascinating insights.

I am an introvert. This might surprise some of those who know me, because I often find myself putting on a mask and acting the part of an extrovert – something Cain also discusses. But Cain’s book has given me a new appreciation for the way being an introvert guides both how I approach others and how I approach issues.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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