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In the past few years, I’ve realized that I have powers attributable to my introversion. These include the ability to listen to someone without interrupting, observe nuances in behavior and expression, make logical connections after thoughtful consideration, and deal with complex issues carefully, gently, and effectively.
But I often get overlooked or ignored because I am a quiet person. There are times when I get annoyed (though I am occasionally humored) by the weight given to those who constantly share and self promote and the lack of attention paid to those who pause to consider a question before responding and speak meaningfully but sparingly.
So, I was both excited about and intrigued by Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Extroverts are seen as normal, introverts are viewed as less than ideal
In Quiet, Susan Cain explores why introverts are maligned in our society, how organizational design often elevates the extrovert at the detriment of the introvert (e.g., group discussions, open-office collaborations, and social events at school, work, and church), and what specific actions can enable introverts to demonstrate and contribute their strengths.
She starts by framing the problem:
We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal–the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight…Introversion–along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness–is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.
Fortunately, Cain brings the good news that introverts are not broken or diseased but have inherent natures that are worthy and even useful, if not different and misunderstood. She offers strategies for cultivating environments that allow introverts time to think, recharge after demanding social situations, and be heard and valued.
Quiet offers compelling ideas that may change your view of introversion
Cain looks at introversion from multiple angles, including historical context, scientific studies, and trends relating to education, work, and even church. She has helped me better understand (and combat) the belief system that portrays extroversion as a preferred state in every situation. Her writing resonated with my personal experiences in trying to be heard without shouting. Here are concepts that most intrigued me:
- The Culture of Personality has replaced the Culture of Character in our society.
Societal forces over the past century have led to changes in how we perceive and interact with each other.
For example, the industrial revolution caused many people to move from communities where they could be known for work ethic, honesty, and skills to larger towns where they needed to make a positive impression on strangers to land positions and thrive.
Eventually, personality traits of integrity and honor were supplanted by those of being fascinating and attractive. Today, verbal abilities and self-promotional skills have become much more important than insightfulness, innovative thinking, and empathy.
- Extroversion and introversion are inborn traits, shaped by upbringing and outside forces.
The book cites a long-term study that measured infants’ reactions to changes in the environment, such as the introduction of new people and activities. The researcher, “Jerome Kagan, a professor of child development at Harvard, noted that most were either highly sensitive to changes in their environment, reacting strongly (20%), or not that sensitive at all, barely reacting (40%), with the rest between the two extremes.
High reactives may be more attuned to changes and become overstimulated as they seek to process new information; low reactives either don’t notice the nuances of the environment or simply embrace novelty.
Research indicated that the high reactives tend to be more introverted as children. Extrapolating to the future, more sensitive folks tend to be introverts as adults.
When Cain visited the study’s author to further explore these ideas, she found that Kagan did not believe infant temperament was destiny. There are many forces that shape personality, he insisted, including parental nurture, environment, and health. Nevertheless, the idea that we may be born with certain inclinations persists.
And anyone (like me) who has been overwhelmed in simple yet novel situations but can deftly navigate familiar yet complex scenarios understands that being sensitive to the environment can be weakness and genuine strength.
- Extroverts can often dominate group discussion and activities, leading to dysfunction and harming performance.
An overemphasis on team collaboration, crowdsourcing, and groupthink can discount the value of solitary thinking to the detriment of the individual, team, and organization.
Cain gives a clear example of group dysfunction at Harvard Business School, a place that she argues is a bastion of extrovertedness. The scenario is a team-building exercise, “Subarctic Survival Situation.” Individuals privately rank items for their value to surviving in subarctic conditions, and then collaborate with team members to develop a group ranking. Both individuals and groups are scored on their results.
A healthy dynamic or group synergy exists when there is a “higher ranking for the team than for its individual members.” However, “the group fails when any of its members has a better ranking than the overall team.”
In one particular exercise, an individual with extensive northern backwoods experience is ignored because he speaks quietly. His score trumps the group’s score, indicating dysfunctional dynamics. One of group members explains that the good ideas from the quieter folks “were dismissed because of the conviction with which the more vocal people suggested their ideas.”
Problems arise when ideas are validated based on loudness of the presenters, not on their merit.
- Surprisingly, about one-third to one-half of Americans self-identify as introverts.
Given that extroversion is accepted as a norm, many of us may be closet introverts, forcing ourselves to adapt to the extroversion model. Alternatively, we may accept being misunderstood or falsely blame ourselves for being tongue-tied at inopportune times or unready to engage in long conversations with acquaintances after a tiring day at work, home, or school.
Anxiety may be caused by the pressure to conform to the extrovert ideal. And, though, Cain doesn’t make scientific claims or draw specific conclusions, she does mention that social anxiety is treated as a medical disorder. Notably, physicians in the U.S. wrote over 50 million prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and its generic equivalent in 2009.
- Introverts have a unique capacity to solve difficult, complicated problems.
Extroverts have a tendency to take a quick-and-dirty approach to problem solving. Decisive, quick action is sometimes needed. But many abandon projects when an initial try fails and a problem seems too difficult.
Introverts are often able to leverage their unique gifts to deal with gritty dilemmas. Specifically, they have the ability and inclination to listen attentively, conduct thorough research, assimilate large amounts of information, and gain clarity on complex issues. Plus, they have tenacity and focus that allows them to persist until a matter is resolved.
Many introverts are able to parlay their insightfulness and problem-solving skills to success in leadership roles. Business consultant Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t, observed that all of the great companies highlighted in his best-selling book were headed by quiet, deep thinking leaders.
Cain relates: “The lesson, says Collins, is clear. We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.”
What Quiet taught me was that being quiet, especially when accompanied by the skills of observation, thought, and reflection, can be an asset to everyday life and leadership roles. Before reading the book, I tended to think that introverts could succeed despite their shortcomings but now I more clearly see they can excel because of their strengths.