Do Not Pardon the Interruption - Power of Introverts

By Elizabeth End posted 10-18-2016 10:55


I recently read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Although it seems like a book about introverts should have a clear definition of introverts, the topic is too complex and debated for the author to define it in simple terms. To boil it all down though, introverts prefer environments that are not over-stimulating. In addition to wanting less stimulation, introverts can also be defined by their approach to work. They tend to listen more than talk. They work more slowly and deliberately and complete one task at a time. Additionally, introverts are relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame. Extroverts, on the other hand, like the thrill of the chase for money and status. They are multi-taskers and risk-takers. They tackle assignments quickly and make fast (and sometimes rash) decisions. They tend to talk more than they listen. (Think Tony Kornheiser.*)

Workplaces are obviously comprised of both types of people, and Susan Cain argues that extroversion has become the ideal which all people are measured against. Typical extrovert traits such as being a good speaker, socializer, and team player are appealing to our American society, but they can also be an oppressive standard for those who don’t naturally have or want those characteristics, many of whom are introverts. Additionally, many standard work environments and processes tend to fall in line with the extrovert ideal, even though methods more in line with introversion would result in more innovation and efficiency.

If extroversion is the ideal, then you could argue that all leaders should be extroverts. Quiet tells a different story though. Studies have shown that different types of workforces excel under different types of leaders. If the workforce is passive, then extroverted leaders are called for. An extroverted manager will be able to get the passive workforce to produce more than an introverted manager due to the extrovert’s ability to verbally motivate and inspire people. If the workforce is more active and trying to improve the process or product, an introverted manager is better suited to lead them. The introverted leader will listen to the workers’ ideas and will spend time contemplating whether to implement them or not. The workers will see their ideas being given serious consideration which will encourage them to identify other efficiencies and possible innovations. They will likely continue to share these ideas with leadership, resulting in a cycle of improvement. With an extrovert in the lead, the active workers will get discouraged when their ideas are not being fully listened to or when the manager makes a snap decision or conclusion without thinking everything through. Due to the discouragement, the workforce will become unsatisfied. The most active contributors will either seek greener pastures or become passive themselves. Leaders and managers must be aware of their teams’ composition and try to act introverted or extroverted, as needed.

Tied into the extrovert ideal is the notion that teamwork is desirable and should be elevated above everything else. Introverts may buy into this (because who wants to be considered “not a team player?”), but due to their nature, they prefer to work independently. Studies have shown that solitude and freedom from interruptions allow for more efficiency and innovation than group work. The best of the best from concert violinists to chess players to college students are those who spend the most time studying or working on their own. In one study, the Coding War Games, top programmers were not found to be those with the most experience or resources. It was the programmers who had the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption that performed the best. Unfortunately, many companies have open-floor plans, and various studies have shown that these set-ups actually reduce productivity and even impair memory. The open floor plans are meant to encourage collaboration and interaction, but they result in higher staff turnover, elevated stress levels, and more workers out with the flu. Even if an office has several nooks and private rooms for employees to squirrel away in when they do not want to be interrupted, most companies still expect the workforce to work on teams and complete exercises such as brainstorming. Group brainstorming in person does not work though due to production blocking. In that group setting, only one person can be talking or producing an idea at a time. Brainstorming is better done with all the individuals working on their own and submitting their ideas online by a certain deadline. In this situation, people can work from where they feel most comfortable, and all participants can be thinking of possible solutions or ideas at the same time. This goes against the extrovert ideal, but it should produce better results. In the words of Steve Wozniak, “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee…. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

I picked up this book after hearing a bit about it in the December 2015 Future Fellows article, “Beyond the Math: Recommended Reading for Actuaries.” Since reading it, I’ve found myself trying to assess whether new people I meet are introverts or extroverts. I am also paying more attention to my team’s composition as well as my office surroundings. I am trying to keep my phone turned off, to not break my concentration. My co-workers continue to ask me questions throughout the day, but maybe I should try to limit them to five good minutes….*

*Tony Kornheiser is a writer and the talk show host of the ESPN television show, “Pardon the Interruption.” Five Good Minutes is a regular segment of “Pardon the Interruption.”

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10-19-2016 22:14

Re: On leadership style

Thanks for bringing up the question, Edgar. Susan Cain says introverts should try to stay true to themselves, but there's room for acting of out of your comfort zone if it is needed. She talks about the Free Trait Theory, the idea that we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits, but we can and do act out of character in the service of "core personal projects."

Cain also gives several examples of how people can adapt a situation while staying true to themselves. One example was about an introvert in a confrontational negotiation involving multiple people. She maintained her introverted demeanour throughout it, and she let her pointed questions do the loud talking for her. 

Additionally, Quiet says that introverts are more threat-oriented while extroverts are reward-oriented. (Threat-oriented in terms of thinking about "what if" scenarios and reacting to them.) A manager could keep this in mind when assigning and communicating tasks to the team members and to try to motivate the team members appropriately.

I do encourage you to read the book though because I am sure my explanations are not conveying the book's messages nearly as well as they should.

10-19-2016 13:28

Re: Introverts and Shyness

What you describe (a general reservedness and aversion to chit-chat but high levels of enthusiasm and loquaciousness on topics that interest you) is the classic introvert paradigm. The title of the book is far from the whole story. I highly recommend giving it a read; it offers great tools whether you're an introvert or a friend to introverts.

10-19-2016 13:22

Re: On leadership style

A manager's job isn't to be true to his personality, it's to enable his team to produce results. It's definitely important to be able to adjust your own behavior in accordance with the needs of your directs. For instance, I am naturally extroverted and manage a mix of introverts and extroverts. With the extroverts, I speak more loudly and more animatedly, I don't hesitate to interrupt them, I make sure to chit-chat with them more, and when significant events like exam passes occur, I do things like decorate their desks. These things excite and energize extroverts and drain introverts. With the introverts, I'm quieter, I IM them rather than showing up at their desks unannounced, I let them drive how personal or chit-chatty a conversation gets, and I would never do something that would bring them unwanted attention like announcing a birthday. I don't think any of my directs get the sense that I'm being fake in these situations, because my focus in both cases is on empathy with my direct and with producing the result of a happy, energized, productive team.

10-19-2016 12:34

Introverts and Shyness

Just wanted to add that introverts are often considered to be quiet, but I think that can be a misunderstanding.  I consider myself an introvert, but I can be very engaged in speaking about topics which I consider meaningful (e.g., my passions/interests, helping others).  If the conversation is about topics I don't see as being meaningful or productive, I tend to withdraw, as I implicitly feel it isn't a good use of my energy.  I hope other introverts find this perspective of value when they feel judged for being too quiet.

10-19-2016 10:33

On leadership style

"Leaders and managers must be aware of their teams’ composition and try to act introverted or extroverted, as needed." -- I'm not sure whether this is something a manager or leader can or should do. Susan Cain seems to promote the idea that all personalities, whether introvert or extrovert, should be accepted in the workplace. If a naturally introverted manager tries to act extroverted for the sake of their team members, then their behavior may confuse the team even more. 

How can a manager adapt to the needs of their team members, while staying true to their own personalities?