Whether in a business, or throughout society, introverts are generally misunderstood. They are seen as close-minded, as antisocial, as the weak link of any team. Articles talk about the “secret signs” that reveal people as introverts, as if it’s something to be ashamed of. Considering how many friends, family members and colleagues have told introverts that they need to be more outgoing, perhaps it is.
Author Susan Cain is one such introvert. In her 2012 TED Talk, Cain reveals how a summer camp set the stage for the first time her personality and natural inclinations were called into question. The first time she was told to put her books away, and prove herself a team player.
Although Cain strongly felt that there was nothing wrong with how she spent her free time, or her desire to tuck herself away and become a writer, the pressure to deny herself that right was strong. Too strong. She became a Wall Street lawyer, both as a job, and as an identity. Cain strived to be assertive, eager, social, to the point where she was denying her true self instinctively, just so she could fit in.
That’s not unusual, especially for young people. Cain notes that between one-third and one-half of the world’s population is introverted, and many, if not most, try to hide it, to their own detriment, and to the detriment of the people in their lives.
You see, the truth is that, for all the positive and negative stereotypes surrounding them, the only difference between introverts and extroverts that matters is how they respond to stimulus. Extroverts thrive in open work environments. Introverts might as well be trying to work at Grand Central Station during rush hour. Put them in a location where they can quietly concentrate, however, and their work will be just as good as the extroverts. Extroverts love to discuss issues. Introverts tend to reflect on them. Both are capable of arriving at the same solution. The difference isn’t what they’re capable of, but how they’re capable of realising it.
In leadership roles, the story is different, but not in the way that tradition infers. Cain references research from Adam Grant at the Wharton School, who found that introverted leaders tend to deliver better results because they allow employees to be proactive, and innovative. In contrast, extroverted leaders often seek as much control as possible, especially when it comes to projects they’re passionate about, ultimately hampering their potential.
That’s not to say being extroverted is bad either. As Cain points out, for organisations and individuals to thrive, people must be free to chart their own path in pursuit of a common goal.
The reason for this is simple. Social psychology dictates that groups follow the lead of the most charismatic person in them, regardless of whether their charisma has anything to do with their ability to be creative or capable as a leader.
In fact, it’s often the opposite that proves true. Historically, the most innovative people in any field are those who work in solitude. In her work as a writer and co-founder of ‘mission-based’ organisation Quiet Revolution, Cain has found that brainstorming groups are often less productive than when the members of that group work alone, and then pool their ideas.
Why? Because such process brings balance; balance that allows both introverts and extroverts to foster excellence in the environment that suits them.
It is only when we establish this balance that we can make the most of the diverse powers of ourselves, and those around us.