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Book review: Quiet — the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking

This review first ran in Feb. 28th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

By Susan Cain

Crown Publishers ($28)

Here are five things I know for certain.

I will never be the life of the party.

I will never solve the mystery that is making small talk with strangers.

I will never be accused of talking too much in a meeting.

I will never lose my intense dislike for ice breakers and team building exercises.

And I would never survive more than a week at the Harvard Business School.

Like an estimated 30 to 50 per cent of the population, I’m an introvert. Our ranks include Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg and J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. And you could make a case for including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama in the club.

While extroverts thrive on constant stimulation and crave the company of others, introverts need time alone to decompress and recharge. No one temperament is better than the other and each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses.

But at work and school, we’ve bought into a value system that author and introvert Susan Cain calls the Extrovert Ideal. It’s an omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.  If you’re not an extrovert and want to get ahead, the message is clear. Fake it.

“The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt,” says Cain. “He favours quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups.

“We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the kind who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there.’ Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.”

The Extrovert Ideal explains our continuing love affair with old school brainstorming, cross-functional teams and open concept offices. It’s why we believe innovation is social. Creativity is collaborative. And that none of us is as smart as all of us. Groupthink is how author and introvert Susan Cain describes this contemporary phenomenon.

Groupthink can cause your organization no end of grief. “If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day,” says Cain. “This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones are squashed.”  If you’ve found yourself trapped in a meeting with a room full of extroverts then you already know what the research shows. There is zero correlation between a gift for gab and an ability to come up with great ideas.

And if you want breakthrough innovations, assembling cross-functional dream teams and forcing extroverts and introverts  to spend every working hour together won’t go well, no matter how funky your open concept workspace.  Here’s the advice Stephen Wozniak, the cofounder of Apple, offered in his memoir. “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

So stop trying to convert your introverts. Don’t tell them to spend less time in their heads. Don’t ding them on performance reviews because they’re not as outgoing as their extroverted colleagues. Along with open spaces for collaboration, give them places where they can close the door, shut out the world and dream up the next big idea for your organization.

Cain recommends organizations should seek out “symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships”, with leadership and divide other tasks according to people’s natural strengths and temperaments. “The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts, studies show, and so are many leadership structures.”

If you’re blessed with proactive employees who take initiative, research shows an introverted leader will get you better results.  Management theorist Jim Collins has found that the highest performing companies have leaders who are consistently described as quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing and understated.

“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. We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.”

Along with recapping a whole lot of research, Cain explores the Extrovert Ideal in all its unnerving glory at a Tony Robbins seminar, the 22,000 congregation strong Saddleback Church and Harvard Business School where students are told to “speak with conviction. Even if you believe something only 55 per cent, say it as if you believe it is a 100 per cent.  Don’t think about the perfect answer. It’s better to get out there and say something than to never get your voice in. If you’re preparing alone for class, then you’re doing it wrong.”

Like I said, I wouldn’t last a week.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Jay,

    Great review. I enjoyed Susan Cain’s book as well… Since you mention you wouldn’t have lasted a week at Harvard, I assume you might consider yourself an introvert?

    I ask because I noticed you work in public relations… If you are an introvert, I’d be very interested in a quick email chat about how difficult (if at all) you find the field with an introverted bent. I ask because I’m changing sectors to communications (motivated in large part by the possibly deluded notion that some communications people excel on the basis of their dazzling ways in the WRITTEN medium…which is altogether different than public speaking skills…or being up front and centre in the dreaded grip and grin events etc.)

    In any case, I’d be interested in your perspective…

    Thanks,
    Colleen

    p.s. I wouldn’t have lasted the day at Harvard… I’d have been hiding in the bathroom by 10:30 a.m.

    April 10, 2013
    • Jay Robb #

      Colleen:
      Welcome to the wonderful world of PR – writing & knowing how to simplify complexity and make it interesting is a core skill. I’ve been in PR for 20 years, working for a nonprofit, hospital, steel company and a college. Being an introvert has its definite advantages — I’ve learned how to listen and I don’t get bored or restless while sitting infront of the computer for 8-10 hr stretches to knock out a speech or a script. Introverts also don’t have the urge to grab or stay in the spotlight, which is where the folks we represent should be. I’ve found the best PR pros stay in the wings and let their leaders take centre stage.
      Cheers,

      June 26, 2013

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