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07 Aug. 2012 | Comments (0)

In Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain explores the experiences of introverts as they navigate extroverted cultures which favor those who are gregarious, confident, commanding, and drawn to the limelight. 

What distinguishes Introverts and Extroverts? Along the Introvert-Extrovert continuum, people vary in the level of external stimulation they require to function optimally. Introverts are at their best in quiet environments, while extroverts crave high levels of stimulation. When people enjoy a level of stimulation that is suited to their individual needs, they are at their most productive, creative, and comfortable. 

Related to these patterns, Cain describes different mixes of traits that tend to be associated with Introverts or Extroverts: 

Introverts:  “reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned.” 

Extroverts: “ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick–skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, and comfortable in the spotlight.“ 

Beyond these descriptors, Cain digs into psychology and neuroscience research to reveal a deeper understanding of introverts and extroverts. Notably, Cain states that people engage in a broad range of behaviors across the introvert-extrovert spectrum to successfully navigate different situations. In fact, introverts often demonstrate many extroverted characteristics at work or school where those traits are typically valued and required for success.

The “Extrovert Ideal”:  Cain argues that, in much of Western society, extroversion is the prevailing model for how to behave. This is evident in the ways that employers design their spaces, processes, and rewards. For example:

  • They design open plan workplaces lacking walls and exposing employees to nonstop noise and interruptions.
  • They tackle work in teams and committees, brainstorming together and filling days with meetings.
  • They recognize employees and their accomplishments in public celebrations.
  • They tend to perceive sociable, assertive extroverts as leaders, despite their inadvertent tendency to repress ideas from their employees.

These systems predominantly align with extrovert preferences for group projects, high levels of stimulation, and processing ideas and information aloud with others.  But these settings can be challenging for introverts who:

  • Do their best work in quiet, private spaces that enable solitary work and uninterrupted concentration;
  • Need time and space for independent contemplation to generate their most creative ideas;
  • Prefer recognition in private; and
  • Are overlooked for leadership roles, despite a tendency toward leading proactive employees to autonomously make the most of their own ideas.

Introvert Marginalization:  Where extroversion prevails, introversion becomes a second-class personality quirk assigned a negative status. Cain describes the weighty bias introverts face in extroverted cultures as similar to those faced by “women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are.” The workplace, where extroversion is rewarded, creates a situation where introverts can feel guilty for being who they are. They divert and deplete their energy as they demonstrate behaviors associated with the “Extrovert Ideal,” while downplaying disfavored traits.

Costs:  When we undervalue introverts and fail to make the most of the mix of introverts and extroverts together, what do we lose?

  • Opportunities for employee engagement:  Introverts can become alienated and disenfranchised in settings not designed for their success.
  • Opportunities to promote strong leaders:  Cain highlights research demonstrating that introverts get better grades, are more knowledgeable, are less likely to take outsized risks, are better listeners, and deliver better outcomes as managers, yet they are commonly overlooked for promotions into leadership positions.
  • Opportunities to leverage substance over style: When extroversion is idealized, verbal abilities and platform skills outweigh creativity or insight. It is common for a group to follow the ideas and opinions of the most dominant, charismatic person in a group, but being the loudest doesn’t mean having the best ideas. 
  • Opportunities for innovation: An incessant focus on face-to-face group collaboration can block creativity arising from solo work, and research shows that solitude can be a catalyst to innovation while group collaboration can be a problematic path to creativity. 

Balanced Inclusion:  We need to make room for a broader range of styles, preferences and talents.  Introverts and Extroverts have complementary strengths, and we need to make the most of their symbiotic relationship by creating environments that enable both populations to be at their best.

Consider 37 Signals, a company that provides web-based applications for sharing and collaboration. Using designing work processes that take introverts into account, 37 Signals offers tools that make collaboration “productive and pleasant” through e-mail, instant messaging, and online chat.  Even more, they suggest “No-Talk Thursdays,” a day each week dedicated to productivity without the interruption of employees speaking to each other. 

Additional benchmarks for introvert-enabling environments may be found in countries, such as Finland and China, with more introverted cultures.  At the same time, these cultures may need to make adjustments that are more inclusive to extroverts.

Cain’s recommendations for systems to rebalance extrovert and introvert contributions include:

1) Creating workspaces that encourage interactions for both a serendipitous exchange of ideas and privacy and independent autonomy.  

2) Developing both introverts and extroverts so they all learn to work on their own as well as in groups. 

3) Cultivating opportunities for all individuals to spend time alone deeply exploring ideas to give rise to innovations and creative solutions to problems.

Insights from Cain’s book can help us inclusively reframe what ideal staff members and leaders looks like, so that we make the most of both our introverted and extroverted employees.  What will you do differently to include both in your workplace? 

View our complete listing of Diversity & Inclusion and Learning & Development blogs.

  • About the Author: Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele is a senior fellow providing diversity & inclusion (D&I) expertise for The Conference Board. She serves as program director for both the Diversity & Inclusion Executives and…

    Full Bio | More from Rebekah Steele


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