Q&A: Quiet Time

The value of introverts in the workplace is often underestimated.

By Donna M. Owens Dec 1, 2013
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You might say that corporate lawyer turned consultant and author Susan Cain has launched a not-so-silent revolution with her groundbreaking book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Broadway Books, 2012). In the best-seller, the Princeton and Harvard Law School graduate asserts that Western culture tends to laud extroverts while undervaluing and misunderstanding introverts.

Shortly after the book’s release, Cain gained further accolades for her popular TED Talk on introverts, which has been viewed more than 5 million times. Since then, the book has won awards and been translated into 30 languages. Cain, a self-described introvert, lives in the Hudson River Valley region of New York with her husband and two sons.

Quiet describes introverts, extroverts and even ambiverts. Please explain.

Introverts have a preference for lower-stimulation environments—for more quiet, for less noise, for less action. That’s where they feel most alive and most energized. In contrast, extroverts crave stimulation to feel at their best. This is why an introvert is more likely to enjoy a quiet glass of wine with a close friend than a loud, raucous party full of strangers. Many people believe that introversion is about being anti-social. That’s a misperception: Introverts are just differently social. Ambiverts are smack in the middle of the introvert-extrovert spectrum.

What percentage of Americans are introverts?

The most recent study I know of, by the Center for Applications of Psychological Type in 1996, sampled 914,219 people and found that 50 percent were introverts.

What are the perceived strengths of introverts at work?

There’s a belief in the modern workplace that the most creative people—and the greatest leaders—are bold, alpha and gregarious, when in fact this is not always true. Many great business leaders are introverts—from Warren Buffett [Berkshire Hathaway] to Wendy Kopp [Teach For America] to Larry Page [Google].

Introverted leaders can often deliver better outcomes than extroverts, according to recently published research findings from Adam Grant, management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Introverts solicit other people’s thoughts and allow the best ideas to reach the light of day.

And psychologists have found that the most creative people tend to have serious streaks of introversion—a preference to spend large chunks of time alone. This is because solitude is a crucial element of creativity. Producing deep and original work requires sitting still, thinking, strategizing.

Introverts are also careful thinkers who look before they leap. In an economic culture that encourages people to take too many unwarranted risks, we clearly need introverts.

What are potential disadvantages of being an introvert?

The disadvantages are familiar: The modern workplace requires a lot of "putting yourself out there," and that can push introverts out of their comfort zones. Extroverts are more likely to seize the day, to "just do it." In Grant’s research, extroverted leaders outperform introverts when it’s necessary to rally the troops and inspire people.

What possible challenges exist for introverts and extroverts when they work together?

Introverts like to think before they speak, and sometimes they feel frustrated by meetings that happen very quickly and in what can feel to them an unconsidered way. Extroverts, on the other hand, can feel understandably frustrated when introverts take so much time to think things through that they don’t share their ideas.

Yet introverts and extroverts need each other, depend on each other. When they understand each other and work together respectfully, you see yin and yang at its best.

How can HR help introverts thrive and contribute in the workplace?

This is such an important question. Here are a few tips:

  • Introverts thrive with more quiet time, while extroverts need more participatory time.
  • When rewarding people for a job well done, think about their personality style. An introvert may not relish a big dinner with a team. Instead, give introverts a day off to spend time as they please.
  • Consider private office space or, if you use an open office plan, include nooks and crannies throughout the office where people—especially introverts—can be by themselves.
  • When it comes to generating ideas, use a hybrid process in which people do a significant part of their creative work on their own and then come together to share what they’ve come up with. We all work and think better this way—extroverts included!

What other advice do you have for introverts—and others—on the job?

Live in accordance with your natural temperament. Set up a career that really suits you. Extroverts need to act more introverted when they sit down to write a memo, even if they’d rather be chatting with their colleagues. Introverts have to stretch when they attend cocktail parties and meetings. But we all must return to what psychologist Brian Little calls our "restorative niches"—the places where we can relax and truly be ourselves.

Donna M. Owens is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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