In the year since Susan Cains book Quiet was published, several other best-selling 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 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 youre in a big open room with other people. There are economic reasons for setting up offices this way. Its said to produce greater collaboration and greater creativity.
For many introverts, this is an uncomfortable way to work. Its an overstimulating environment, where its hard to concentrate.
Ironically, its not much better for extroverts. Open-plan offices impair concentration and even make people physically ill – literally, because there are so many germs floating around.
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 this is not how 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 doesnt 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.
Q. What advice would you give introverts?
A. Its really a question of how to draw on your own natural strengths.
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 write letters of thanks.
He wrote 30,000 of these letters – something no extrovert would do. It had profound impact.
Q. Harnessing introversion when youre 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 dont notice?
A. I think successful introverts do find ways to be recognized for the substantive value they add. 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. His natural inclination was to walk lost in thought, solving some problem, but he realized people thought he was being aloof.
All of it is pushing yourself a bit outside of your comfort zone.