There are usually two things people are shocked to learn about me: 1) I’m from Texas and 2) I’m an introvert.
If you google the definition of introvert, it says that introverts are “shy, reticent, and typically self-centered person.” So, it seems calling yourself an introvert is equivalent to being a social outcast. Not according to a fascinating book called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. The book redefines what is means to be an introvert and discusses the challenges that introverts face professionally and personally in a society that idealizes risk-takers, big personalities, and wants everybody to work in groups. She delivered an awesome TEDx Talk which received the most number of views in its first week for any TED talk.
Cain describes introverts as people who prefer quiet, minimally stimulating environments. Introverts are thinkers and listeners; they are most creative/productive when they have more quiet spaces. But if you look at our environment, our work environments are created to support extroverts. Workspaces are open-planned; companies emphasize group work; networking is essential; and loud people with big ideas are idealized. I’m not calling for introvert rights; but I do think it is important to understand that introverts lead and work differently. Cain’s book gives great examples of the working relationship between introverts and extroverts. There is one where students at Harvard Business School (or as Cain says is a place of extreme extrovertedness) were divided into mixed groups of introverts and extroverts. The study found that the groups would support the extrovert’s decision even though the introvert’s decision was correct. In general, there is a misconception that introverts cannot be leaders or innovators. Some of our greatest leaders and thinkers were introverts: Rosa Parks, Steve Jobs, Picasso, and Bill Gates.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve worked in hedge funds, private equity, and companies who reward bullies. I have developed my own systems of working in an extrovert world; like many, I’m a closet introvert. I used to have panic attacks before large networking events and learned how to network as an introvert. What I would like to see are environments that support both introverts and extroverts. It is estimated that 1/3 to 1/2 of the workforce are introverts– that’s a lot of people! My suggestions for unleashing the introverts is to redesign workspaces that allow for quiet/private spaces, less emphasis on brainstorming sessions/group work for ideas, and don’t criticize introverts for being introverts (i.e. why can’t you be more talkative like Johnny). Insigniam, a business performance consultancy firm, has a great article about creating teams of introverts and extroverts to develop a “innovation dream team”.
Cain’s book is a great read but if you need something short and sweet, check out this great article from Scientific American interviewing Cain and her “quiet brilliance manifesto”.