A few months ago I did a post on Susan Cain's best-seller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. After a preliminary scan of the book I was impressed by Cain's insight that our business organizations—not to mention our society in general—tend to be extrovert-centric, often devaluing the quiet and reflective contributions of the more introverted among us. But now after reading all 368 pages of the book, I'm convinced the problem is more deeply rooted in our system than I realized.
Cain cites the Harvard B School as an institution emblematic of the “Extrovert Ideal.” There, as in many business schools, the emphasis is on social interaction, group activities, speaking with conviction, thinking on your feet, selling your ideas, projecting certainty. Students who talk “often and forcefully” are rewarded with good grades. Those who hang back and deliberate are not. This, the author argues, occurs against a broad societal backdrop in which we see “talkers as leaders.” But numerous studies she cites detonate that assumption.
Cain also references the research done by management theorist Jim Collins (in his book Good to Great) into 11 outstanding companies and his surprise discovery that the CEOs of these organizations were anything but outgoing extroverts. In fact, they were characterized by colleagues as quiet, reserved, self-effacing, etc.
Cain quotes a successful venture capitalist:
I worry that there are people who are put in positions of authority because they’re good talkers but they don't have good ideas. It so easy to confuse schmoozing ability with talent…We put too much of a premium on presenting and not enough on substance and critical thinking.
Quite a broadside against the culture of American leadership—if not America itself. (Cain does not limit herself to the world of business and implicates our educational and political culture as well, but that's a subject for a different post. Or blog.)
Of course our teams and organizations need extroverts too. It’s to our collective benefit that at least half of us are outgoing, talkative, energetic, action-focused—the classic descriptors of extroversion. (Carl Jung would describe extroversion more technically as a focus on the external world.) And there are many of us who swing both ways as ambiverts. But it’s when we overvalue one aspect of personality that we become, as a society, unbalanced. Cain concludes, after attending a high-octane Tony Robbins seminar:
Nowadays we tend to think that becoming more extroverted not only makes us more successful, but also makes us better people. We see salesmanship as a way of sharing one’s gift with the world.
Having spent a decade earlier in my career in a learning environment that overvalued extroverted behavior, I know all too well the problem of confusing communication with speaking—and the subtle devaluation of listening, reflecting, and questioning that goes along with it. When leadership is judged primarily on verbal and presentational skills, the quiet (and often the most creative) among us look elsewhere to make their contributions—or just get quieter.
For my earlier post on the book, including my list of introverts who have made a major dent in the world of rock (including Dylan, Clapton, MJ, Prince) check here.