Special To The Washington Post.
Special To The Washington Post.
In the year since Susan Cain's book "Quiet" was published, 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 meetings. Cain spoke about what it would look like to cultivate the assets that introverts bring to the workplace. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How have you seen the extrovert ideal play out in corporate America?
A: It permeates everything from how we structure our offices to how we expect people to be creative to whom we groom for leadership positions.
The 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. It's said to produce greater collaboration and greater creativity. For many introverts, this is an uncomfortable way to work. It's an overstimulating environment, where it's hard to concentrate.
Ironically, it's not much better for extroverts. There are 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 they actually prevent people from forming close friendships. If you think about it, the way you start a friendship 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 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 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. 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.
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 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. Extroverted leaders do better when you need charisma and a rousing call to arms.
Q: What advice would you give introverts?
A: It's really a question of how to draw on your own natural strengths. So for example, Douglas Conant, who was the CEO of Campbell Soup, describes himself as shy and introverted. He was well known for identifying employees who had really contributed, and he would sit down and write letters of thanks. He wrote 30,000 of these letters — an astounding number and something no extrovert would do. It had profound impact. People really felt connected to him and recognized by him.
Q: Harnessing introversion when you're CEO is one thing, but how do you even get to a top position if your greatest skills tend to be the ones that superiors don't notice?
A: I think successful introverts do find ways to be recognized for the substantive value they add. Larry Page is an introvert, and he's the co-founder and now CEO of Google. People talk about him not having the classic personality of a CEO, but people do realize that the strategic thinking he brings to the company is not to be discounted.
That said, most introverted leaders will tell you that they coach themselves to do things outside their comfort zone. They do things like set personal daily quotas for how many times a day they leave their office. There was one CEO who had to remind himself when walking down the hallway to make eye contact and greet people, because his natural inclination would be to walk lost in thought, solving some problem. But he realized people thought he was being aloof and dismissive of them.
All of it is pushing yourself a bit outside of your comfort zone. The successful ones are doing this in the service of something they really care about.
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Cunningham is the editor of On Leadership. @lily_cunningham.