By Susan Cain
I feel validated! After a lifetime of thinking that something was wrong with me when I wanted to work alone and did not want to be part of a team, Susan Cain has written a beautiful book promoting the value introverts bring to the workplace. I first heard of Cain’s work when I viewed her moving presentation on TED Talks. If you need any inspiration to read this book, view her TED Talk and you will see why I am so excited about her compelling research and writing.
The basic premise of Quiet is that we dramatically undervalue introverts and the contribution they make in the workplace. Scan the business press and leading newspapers and you will see that the predominant thought is that the most successful people are gregarious, outgoing, charismatic and comfortable speaking and working with large numbers of people. Cain calls this the “Extrovert Ideal” and gives many examples of introverts being overlooked and ignored when action is valued more than contemplation. In the extrovert ideal, being shy and sensitive is equated with being weak while being bold and decisive is considered strong. Faced with this kind of value system, many introverts conform to a standard that is uncomfortable to be successful by learning how to fake extroversion in order to be heard and taken seriously.
Cain cites our emphasis on teams and collaboration in the workplace as examples of the extrovert ideal in business. She then describes ample research that shows how reliance on collaboration can actually kill creativity and produce group-think, neither one conducive to good business decisions. One example she details that I personally found quite chilling is how prevalent the extrovert ideal is in our education system. Cain interviews an introverted MBA student at Harvard Business School and shows how he is repeatedly forced to fake extroversion in order to succeed in that high-pressure learning environment.
Cain offers suggestions on how we need to be more respectful and inclusive of the contribution introverts can bring to the workplace. She talks about being conscious of creating quiet places and acknowledging that quality work can be done alone, not only in teams. She encourages introverts to find a way to have a “restorative niche,” a place they can go to quietly recharge after they have been working as extroverts, a process most find exhausting. One can even build in a restorative niche during a meeting by sitting away from the center of the table where the physical distance from others will allow you to sit back and reflect as needed.
I believe that Quiet is one of the most important books to hit the business press in a long time. Many leadership tomes I read applaud the extrovert ideal showing leadership as an act of utmost decisiveness and assertiveness (Jack Welch and “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap come to mind as stellar examples.) Quiet shows us that the thoughtful, reflective leaders can be just as effective and need to be embraced, not marginalized as being without merit. Who knows, maybe Quiet will start a small revolution to turn the corporate world away from the so called collaborative cube-farms into workplaces that enable a balance of assertive ideas and quiet reflection.