Uncovering a ‘Whole World of Secret Introverts’

Author Susan Cain shows how business, meetings can better balance the contributions of introverts and extroverts alike.

In a setting like an association conference, networking and conversation and collaboration are all turned up to 11. It’s an extrovert’s playground.

But not everyone at a convention like ASAE’s 2013 Annual Meeting & Expo is an extrovert. According to Susan Cain, about half of us are just playing along.

Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, uncovered a “whole world of secret introverts” in her opening general session presentation Sunday. Indeed, by a show of hands in the room, there was a 50/50 split between extroverts and introverts among attendees as Cain made the case for reimagining the ways we work, interact, and do business to better capitalize on the virtues of both personality types.

Introverts feel their most alive, their most energized, and their deepest sense of equilibrium when they are in environments that are less stimulating.

The status quo in the business world and much of American culture is skewed toward valuing extroverted tendencies, Cain says, which leads to a misunderstanding of introverts. They aren’t lesser contributors or incapable of social interaction. Rather, introverts simply process knowledge and engage with their surroundings in a different, quieter context.

“Introverts feel their most alive, their most energized, and their deepest sense of equilibrium when they are in environments that are less stimulating,” says Cain, who describes herself as an introvert. They value periods of solitude, which allow them to be at their most creative. That work style has benefited iconic leaders like Albert Einstein, J.K. Rowling, and Warren Buffet, all self-proclaimed introverts, Cain says.

She invoked the work of Jim Collins, who identified several “Level 5” leaders in his book Good to Great. Each of those leaders was described as passionate but somewhat shy. Cain says what often calls introverts to leadership roles—and makes them excel—is a passion for a cause that is far stronger than any desire for power or personal gain. “There’s more than one way to do the tasks of modern-day leadership and modern-day work,” she says.

Introversion and extroversion can be seen in children at just days old, Cain says, but our extroverted culture even leads parents to be concerned that introverted children are getting less out of early social and learning experiences. That tendency carries through to the workplace, where group meetings and open office spaces create environments that not only marginalize introverts but often lead to poor business decisions. She discussed psychological research that shows that, in group settings, not only do people tend to agree out of a desire for social cohesion but they genuinely convince themselves that the group decision is good, regardless of its merits or the individual’s prior independent conclusions. Brain scans in experiments show us fooling ourselves.

“We all so instinctively mimic the opinions of the people around us,” Cain says, “that we take on other people’s opinions as our own. Really, none of us can trust ourselves fully when we’re in the presence of others to know what’s truly in our minds and in our hearts.”

To avoid groupthink and harness the power of introverts, Cain recommends several new ways of thinking:

  1. Rethink social interaction. Introverts should schedule both solo time and “walkarounds,” purposeful time for leaving the desk and visiting colleagues, Cain says. Because introverts prefer to think before speaking, Cain suggests they prepare in advance and intentionally speak early in meetings to avoid the “anticipatory anxiety” of waiting to speak. Conversely, extroverts should plan fewer formal meetings and engage introverts one on one, with time to prepare.
  2. Rethink hiring and leadership. Cain says the traditional hiring process overlooks introverted leaders, and she recommends that business leaders seek out team members who complement their own tendencies. Her own business partner is an extrovert, she says. “One of the great myths of our society that one gifted person can do it all.”
  3. Rethink public speaking. Anyone nervous about speaking in public (which likely isn’t limited to introverted personalities) should start small and work up toward larger speaking engagements through regular practice. “Desensitization” through exposure to fear is an effective technique, but only if you start “in situations where it doesn’t matter if you screw up.”
  4. Rethink conferences. Cain made no pretenses about the notion that conferences like the very ones she has been speaking at (including ASAE’s Annual Meeting) are not always friendly to introverts. She recommends starting conferences off with sessions with broad applicability, conversation starters that “allow people to wade through the horror of small talk,” and designing opportunities for people to take a break or seek alone time to recharge.
  5. Rethink diversity. Cain says diversity and inclusion based on race, gender, and other demographic qualities are virtuous for both moral and business reasons, but that “the same things are true of personality diversity. We desperately need the talents of the bold and the gregarious among us, but we also need the talents of the quiet and the thoughtful.”

(photo by Jamey Guy)

Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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