Quiet Force: Introverted Employees Can Excel
Journalist Susan Cain makes a resounding call in her bestselling book Quiet to rebalance America’s extrovert-heavy workplaces and business practices so introverted employees can excel. What’s been missing? Time and space for solitude.
Managing Director Thad Lurie held a one-man sit-in at a recent association conference meal to protest a perceived insult: a short exercise involving handshakes, smiles, and small talk to help acquaint attendees.
Lurie is an introvert, one of the estimated 33 percent to 52 percent of Americans who prefer solitude or engagement with small groups of people they already know. He’s also an 11-year veteran of associations, which have members, staff, and industry partners who, um, associate. A lot.
“I was thinking, ‘This is an absolute nightmare,’” says Lurie about the exercise. “I started tweeting, and some other introverts jumped on, saying, ‘This doesn’t work for us! We need a different approach.’ I have a special category in my mind that I refer to as ‘forced merriment.’ I hate these kinds of insincere, imaginary situations, role-playing, and ‘icebreakers’—they’re all just awful!”
Where Lurie went public about his introversion, Frank Gainer—like many employed introverts—adopts a more outgoing work persona and recovers privately later at night. He thinks members of his American Occupational Therapy Association may not believe he is introverted, judging by his talkative demeanor with them and his title as director of conferences.
“When I’m around people I know, they think I’m extroverted,” says Gainer. “But when I go into a new situation, I like to scope things out. I’ve never been one to dive right in. I was raised that you don’t say something unless you have something worth saying. Not to be cruel or anything, but sometimes people just want to hear themselves talk.”
Now introverts, extroverts, and even half-and-half “ambiverts” are speaking out about something else: Journalist Susan Cain and her bestselling book on “the power of introverts in a world that won’t stop talking,” which, despite its title, Quiet, has created some loud buzz in business circles.
“Everything I’m talking about has been an issue for decades,” says Cain, an introvert who studied society’s most influential institutions of religion, education, business, and more and found them all heavily slanted toward extroversion. “It’s just that people weren’t paying attention to it.
“In the last decade, though, there’s this new idea that collaboration is the answer to all things. … We’ve gotten so lopsided in our praise for that mode of doing things that we’ve lost sight of the value of solitude, of solitary thinking, of solitary work, of a deep psychological need to go off and be productive in quiet ways,” she says. “This is something not only introverts are feeling but extroverts also. … We’ve gone overboard, and we need to come back to some kind of balance.”
Adjusting to the New Normal
For associations, that conclusion requires new reflection on everything from leadership to learning formats, meetings management to work culture. Some organizations are already adjusting, piloting efforts to engage and leverage introverted members, staff, and volunteers with greater sensitivity. These include designing quiet meet-up spots for individuals or micro-group gatherings at big events, asking speakers to distribute education handouts with questions for private pondering before a session or in a virtual chat room post-conference, and mixing learning formats among introvert-preferred lectures and extrovert-preferred hands-on activities.
The assumed characteristics and skills needed by association leaders are being revisited, too.
“We tend to overestimate how outgoing leaders need to be,” Cain writes in Quiet, pointing to Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Eleanor Roosevelt. In fact, her research shows that, in certain circumstances, introverted leaders deliver better outcomes than extroverted leaders do.
“The term ‘introverted leader’ is counterintuitive because we assume leadership almost by definition is an extroverted act,” she says. “For example, social scientist Adam Grant at Wharton found that when you have a group of employees who are proactive and committed to what they are doing, they do better under an introverted leader than an extroverted one. That leader is more willing to nurture his employees and allow them to implement their ideas, whereas extroverted leaders can get so excited and tend to be naturally dominant that they put their own stamp on things, so other people’s ideas may not shine as much.”
On the other hand, says Cain, “extroverted leaders do better when employees are in need of inspiration or rousing, so it’s not to say that one style is better but that each style can be ideal depending on conditions.” She notes that most management research focuses on extroverts, “so we’re missing out on some of the best power.”
Leaders should not only think about themselves but also consider how their employees’ introversion may affect them in the office.
Lurie, for instance, has conditioned himself for meetings and public speaking, but he “always gets dinged [in work reviews] on the social side. ‘Why don’t you come to the happy hours? Why don’t you come to the birthday cake celebrations?’ It’s partially because I’m introverted and partially because when I’m off work I prefer to spend time with my family,” he says. “The hardest things for me have been the all-day staff picnic or retreat, activities where you have to be really social with a bunch of people.”
That has a familiar ring to Cain, who laments the stories and data about introverts routinely criticized for “not participating enough in meetings or retreats” and the like.
“Give such employees a chance to think things through, and don’t put them on the spot,” she says. “Know that if you want to get the best of their brain, you’re much better off not only giving them prep time, but also talking to them one on one or by email instead of throwing people together in a meeting and expecting to hear their best. You’re not going to.”
Cain advises extroverted managers to understand that their own natural inclination to speak at meetings is much greater than introverts’. These managers need to “sit back and let other people say their piece” to tone down any sense of domination.
And an extroverted employee trying to best serve an introverted boss should “understand that your boss’s style is more reserved than yours, so don’t misunderstand that as disapproval and lack of engagement,” says Cain. “Also, [introverted supervisors] like to prepare before they make decisions or have discussions. If you want your boss’s opinion about how you’re doing … schedule something with him, so he has time to think about it beforehand.
Lurie, who moved to the technology firm Old Town IT in March, discovered his new boss also is introverted. “So far it’s been fine,” he says. “When you get a couple of introverts together, they’re good at respecting boundaries. If I need to talk to him, I’ll send him an instant message, and when he’s ready, he’ll come talk to me, and he does the same for me. We still have objectives we have to meet, but the work methods are a bit different.”
Finding a Balance
Solitude is vital for Gainer: “In my position there’s lots of stress and lots of information constantly coming at you. I need more quiet time, especially as I get older, to regroup.”
Lurie says he gets confused sometimes about the level and type of interaction his colleagues expect. He prefers email. “I’m comfortable there. I can organize my thoughts and share them the way I want, so I can control message, perception, etc.,” he says.
Gainer also likes a sense of control and order: “On site visits I don’t need to be the center of attention. I like listening. I like processing.”
Cain empathizes, especially since her return visit to the extremely extroverted culture of Harvard University, where she obtained her law degree. “Everything is about group learning, group brainstorming, and group creativity sessions,” she says. “There’s such a deep belief in it, but we’re missing out as a culture. It feels like we’re headed in the wrong direction.”
Instead, Cain advocates a work culture appealing to all styles. “The real key is offering people lots of variety in terms of their work situations,” she says. “We have the means now in office design to make those things happen, but I worry after seeing places like Harvard Business School that our future business leaders are not being trained to think that way.”
Nor are their employees, some of whom see Cain’s book as a wonderful opening to sensitize organizations to different work styles.
“Although I built my more extroverted persona, I’m always going to be an introvert,” says Lurie. “This isn’t a situation where if I do more of it, I’ll get better at it. This is a biologically wired thing in which this is how I am, and accepting that and trying to gear professional success around it is a much better approach for me and my organizations.”
Susan Cain will be the Opening General Session speaker at the 2013 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition, August 3–6, in Atlanta. To register, visit www.asaecenter.org/annualmeeting.