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Up With Quieting Down

Let’s not let the loudest voices make all the key decisions for us in our organizations and our society.

December 12, 2013

I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s “Quiet,” and I’m left disquieted. Left with the sense that our organizations and our society are impaired, like engines that backfire and sputter noisily.

Cain’s book, which explores the “power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking,” got a fair amount of attention when it was published last year. But many of her arguments continue to fall on deaf ears in the public sphere and in the realm of people management. Companies, for example, keep catering to extroverts in ways that undermine not only introverted employees but also business results.

Let’s not let the loudest voices make all the key decisions for us in our organizations and our society.

I was prompted to read “Quiet” by a book event at my kids’ school. My 10-year-old son fits the definition of an introvert pretty well. He spends hours reading on his own — he even gave thanks at the dinner table recently for “books” — and likes being in the background of his youth rock band as drummer. I hoped the book would help me parent him.

It did. Cain, an attorney and writer, assembles a mass of evidence starting with the finding that about one-third to a half of our population is introverted. That is, they tend to be more cerebral, less social and softer spoken. Introversion is a biologically based temperament and has many strengths. These include thoughtfulness, creativity and conscientiousness. But society over the past century or so has elevated an “extrovert ideal,” where expressive, assertive and gregarious types are generally favored.

I had some “wow” moments as a parent reading “Quiet,” such as a basic understanding that introversion is not a disease that needs to be cured. Cain also persuaded me that introverts are particularly capable of developing great passions. In my son’s case, drumming seems to be one. I was heartened by Cain’s story of drummer David Weiss, who says social awkwardness as a youth gave way to a meaningful life as a musician and writer. I saw a similar possible path for my son.

But “Quiet” also makes the case that we make it much harder on introverts than need be — to the detriment of individuals and organizations.

Here are several workforce lessons to be gleaned from “Quiet”:

  • ?We’re miscollaborating. Introverts do much of their best work in solitude. And they collaborate particularly well when they can contribute written comments in “asynchronous” ways. Think online chat forums and the related achievements of Wikipedia, MoveOn.org and the Linux operating system. But many organizations have taken the concept of teamwork to an extreme, requiring people to collaborate much of the time, in face-to-face meetings or real-time teleconferences. As Cain puts it, “We failed to realize that what makes sense for the asynchronous, relatively anonymous interactions of the Internet might not work as well inside the face-to-face, politically charged, acoustically noisy confines of an open-plan office.”
  • We’re misdesigning offices. As Cain’s last comment suggests, the trend to knock down office walls and demolish even cubicles in favor of wide-open office spaces can backfire. Related to the trend of hypercollaboration, the push to make offices a great sea of tables where everyone can see — and hear — everyone else seems to be going too far. Not only does it risk distracting workers to no end, but also I suspect that introverts in particular chafe against the way some firms have eliminated fixed workspaces for individual employees in favor of systems where workers must reserve desks and rooms. Where is the refuge, the sense of a private space or home at work?
  • ?We’re misleading organizations. Another gem in “Quiet” is the finding that the introverts are more effective leaders when a team has proactive members. That is, they are better able to pick up on the ideas of assertive, active subordinates and seize on the best suggestions. Extroverts, by contrast, have a leadership edge when workers tend to be passive. As Cain says, it’s “important for companies to groom listeners as well as talkers for leadership roles.” Demography and the trend toward decentralized business structures suggest introverts may be the wiser bets in the long haul: as speak-their-mind millennials make up a larger portion of employees and companies rely on inputs from the front line to better serve customers, quieter leaders could be better suited to bring out the best in the workforce.

So let’s not let the loudest voices make all the key decisions for us in our organizations and our society. We need to tap the power of introverts as well as extroverts for our companies and our culture to truly hum.

Ed Frauenheim is Workforce's associate editorial director. Comment below or email him at efrauenheim@workforce.com. Follow Frauenheim on Twitter at @edfrauenheim.