Why We Should Pay More Attention To Introverts
May 24, 2019 | Filed in: Your Brain
“I’m an introvert and I come from a family of introverts,” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, when I ask what drew her to her topic. She elaborates. “It’s something that I’ve thought about since I was a child. It’s always been clear to me that my family and I liked to spend our time in ways that weren’t typical.”
But nothing to see here, folks—Cain, her two older siblings, and her parents relished reading, writing, and “solitary, deep-thought work that takes time and a certain disposition,” the kind of thinking that made her father a great doctor, she says.
After growing up on Long Island, Cain attended Princeton, graduated from Harvard Law School, and headed into corporate law. “I was interested in women’s issues,” she says, “and I began to notice that people were attributing certain workplace dynamics to the differences between men and women. Those dynamics, however, were really about differences between introverts and extroverts. But there was no way to talk about it.”
She could write about it, though. Cain stopped practicing law and began working on a “quirky, idiosyncratic project about introverts,” she says. “I had no idea that it was going to become a gigantic thing.”
In fact, Quiet did become a gigantic thing, quickly hitting the bestseller lists when it was published in 2012 (seven years later, it’s still on the New York Times list). Since then, Cain is sought after as a speaker by corporate leaders and creative types alike. She launched a for-profit company, Quiet Revolution, with the mission to “unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of all of us.” Her TED talk has been viewed close to 22 million times. Last year, LinkedIn named her the 6th Top Influencer in the world, after Richard Branson, Melinda Gates, and Justin Trudeau.
And her podcast features episodes with titles like “How Young Introverts Can Thrive on Social Media” and “Molly Ringwald: Hollywood’s Introvert.” Could she be any cooler?
Cain lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and two sons. She paused her whirlwind activities on a recent morning to talk with us.
What is an introvert?
Introverts tend to prefer listening to speaking. You can get a pretty quick read on yourself or someone else by asking, how do you feel after two hours at a [fun] party? The extrovert’s battery gets charged by those two hours—she wants the after-party. But the introvert’s battery becomes drained, and she wants to go home. She looks around mystified at everyone who seems so pumped up, wondering, am I the only one who feels this way?
How do introverts and extroverts approach problems differently?
The way of the extrovert is to “seize the day” and “just do it.” “Look before you leap” sounds distinctly less glamorous, but it might describe the introvert’s way. In one study I read, subjects are offered gifts, and you get a better gift if you wait for it. The extroverts were much more likely to take the gift right away. The introverts waited and got the better gift down the road. There’s a lot to be said for delayed gratification. Another study looked at traders at a London investment bank and found that the introverted traders had better records than extroverted ones.
Isn’t that an oxymoron, “introvert” and “trader”? Don’t you need to yell and scream and run around?
You really don’t. What you need to do is make good trades. We assume that these roles require yelling and running around, but they require the ability to take good actions. Introverts can take actions that are just as good and, in some situations, better than those of extroverts—because of the introvert’s tendency to pause and reflect.
Do you think there’s a bias against introverts in organizations?
Yes, the bias is deep. We have a culture that favors self-promotion where you can’t really get through a quarterly review without being told that you have to speak up more—if you’re not the kind of person who speaks up a lot. The way you present yourself becomes a proxy for how people think of you.
Why do you think that these stereotypes exist—that to succeed you have to be so intensely assertive that no one sees anyone but you in the room.
The way we do business—the form, not the actual substance—favors a charismatic, spotlight-seeking personality. Much business is conducted in the job interview, board room, VC pitch, all these situations in which the ability to think quickly on your feet and present a smooth, confident exterior carries a lot of weight. Understandably, anybody would want to have those traits.
Not long ago, I spoke with a man whose job was the private equity guy who evaluates VC pitches. He told me that he was constantly amazed by how often his colleagues were persuaded by someone who spoke well and confidently. He said that if you really listen, you’ll see that some pitches are not good, but that people are taken in by them routinely. It’s not as if there’s something wrong with good presentation skills—we just have to value substance more.
Tell me why introverts are crucial to a successful organization.
When I speak to companies, I find that most of the creatives are introverted, which lines up with what we know about creativity. If you’re a company that depends a lot on creativity, you should care about that. Companies that rely on quantitative, technical, financial, or technological skills are also places where introverts are overrepresented. Introverts tend to be analytical and good decision-makers. They tend to be creative. And they tend to be good leaders. It’s funny, because we’ve seen that introverts are often passed over for leadership positions. When they are leaders, though, they deliver very good results. Bill Gates is a classic introvert, for example. He says [if there is a problem to solve], he’ll go off [on his own] for days at a time to think deeply and read about it to figure out a solution. That might not be what we think leadership looks like, but this kind of leader is steering the ship in the right direction.
You say that introverts deliver better results. How do you measure that?
A recent report found that introverted leaders were more likely than extroverted leaders to outperform their board’s expectations. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, looked at the top 11 best-performing companies in the country and found that every single one of them was led by a CEO described as quiet, soft-spoken, and shy. They were introverted!
According to this thinking, what are the implications for women in the workplace?
About 50% of women and 50% of men are introverts. But it shows up differently in men and women because of gender expectations. Introverted men struggle with the expectation that they should be the dominant, alpha guy. On the other hand, both introverted and extroverted women struggle, though for different reasons. Feminism has rescued us from the expectation that we’re docile, but I think there has been an overcorrection. Many introverted women now feel that they’re supposed to be a take-charge, sassy girl. But perhaps they’re not sassy, and they have other qualities going for them. Introverted women walk that tightrope. Meanwhile, it’s not so easy for extroverted women because they’re being told that they’re too aggressive and they talk too much.
So, gender expectations crash up against prejudices about personal styles and psychologies.
Yes. If you’re an introverted man, at least you have the automatic authority that’s [extended] to all men. Even if you’re not making a big show of holding the room, you’ve got that authority. A quiet woman, on the other hand, has no authority until she figures out some way to take it. One of the great things to know is that we’re all such social beings that we read people without even being aware that we’re doing it. If you’re operating from true conviction, it will be communicated even if you are female and even if you are speaking softly. The real trick for introverted women—and for all women—is to figure out your convictions and then speak from them. That’s how you’re going to claim your authority. Like a tennis game, it’s mental.
How can introverted women position themselves as leaders? Can they buck the value system associated with extroverts, like “owning the room,” and assert themselves?
Look for opportunities where you can put yourself into a different light. The best thing that you can do is acquire expertise in an area where it is deeply needed. I learned this at my law firm. I saw that the women who had carved out a niche were the women who ultimately worked out better deals for themselves. You can look for places to put yourself forward and share your knowledge. That may be writing a weekly blog post or grabbing a speaking opportunity. Public speaking gives you a disproportionate bang for the buck in the way people see you. If you’re afraid of public speaking, as I was for many years, you should join Toastmasters and learn to become more comfortable with it.
For those of us who are in charge, how can we structure our organizations so that the best ideas not just the most vocal, assertive people get ahead?
Start with meetings. There are simple activities such as going around the room to make sure everyone has spoken. Or “brain-writing,” which is where, instead of brainstorming in a verbal free-for-all, you ask people to write down their ideas on Post-Its, and put them up at the front of the room and talk about them. Now, suddenly, everybody’s ideas are out there.
Deep down, teams need to talk about this stuff. It needs to be socially acceptable to acknowledge the temperament of everyone on the team. For everyone to feel free to share the conditions that they need to be working at their best and to consider how to accommodate each other. Often, the needed tweaks are just a matter of communicating them.
From what you say, this is not only humanistic but also smart. Do managers tend to understand that you get better results this way?
The paradox is that the more people feel that their personal style is being validated, the more likely they are to contribute and stay engaged. In a typical meeting, three people do 70% of the talking. If you’re the boss, why would you ever want a situation where you’re only hearing from three people?