The power of quiet

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.

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  1. A few quick points:

    - It's not just an American problem that good talkers / presenters are seen as de facto good leaders. As a Brit, I see it happening too often in many parts of both the UK and parts of Europe.

    - Working for an Asian company where good techie people are often promoted to leadership and/or overseas positions they're hopelessly ill-suited for, beware pushing the pendulum too far in the other direction.

    - I think there's another problem at work here. There seems to be an assumption in many people's minds that there's a pre-determined career path, e.g. salesman to Area Sales Manager to National Sales Manager to Chief Sales Officer or whatever. It also seems to be assumed that if you fall short in any of these steps, you're unsuited for the next one. BS. People need to think, amongst other things, about what qualities are needed in the role and whether a candidate has them; and about if the role now needs a completely different set of qualities to those epitomised by the previous person.

    - I wonder if the problem with overlooking substance in favour of style is that so many of the people in decision-making positions lack substance themselves. It's like the old, "No one gets fired for selecting IBM." (That dates me!) If everyone can say, "Well, we all agreed he had a great CV and he presented real well" it seems to make them immune to questions like, "But did you ask him the right questions?"

    1. Good points. Cain would say that most European societies overvalue extroversion. But in the US it's extroversion on steroids.

      I left out one of the most interesting sections of the book in which Cain discusses the introverted nature of other cultures, especially East Asians, and the challenges they face in adapting to an extrovert-centric society in the US. In their home culture, East Asians are taught to focus on listening and reading. Talking just isn’t a priority. As one Taiwanese woman remarked, reflecting on her experiences as a student at UCLA, “The professor would start class, saying, 'Let's discuss!' I would look at my peers while they were talking nonsense, and the professors were so patient, just listening to everyone. I remember being amazed. It was a linguistics class, and that's not even linguistics the students were talking about! I thought, 'Oh, in the US, as soon as you start talking, you're fine.'” Ouch.

  2. In the week I spent once with Eric Clapton, I found him very introverted, bordering on shy. He let Jack Bruce handle all the histrionics with Ginger Baker. He would just retire to a corner in the green room and draw weird skeletal characters. He has recounted how he was terrified to sing "Crossroads" on the Beano album. He was quaking with terror standing at the microphone since he was so shy and insecure over his vocal abilities.

    I grew up painfully shy and the resultant problems it led to in relating to girls was devastating. A Reichian therapist correctly dealt with it as crippling fear and something significant and important to deal with. Nothing cute or charming, it was dysfunction, plain and simple.

    I managed to find my voice over time, and now am able to balance effective expression with my natural shyness--functional is usually a balancing act. In business it wasn't so much
    becoming an extrovert" that helped in business, but my learning to express myself in an articulate and concise manner, and be ready to listen to others at the same time.

    I find the classic "loudmouths" in business only get as far as the quality of their ideas. If you really have something to say, folks will gladly hear you out for as along as it takes. But there is a subset of that: the loquacious Alpha Males who learn all the manipulative buzzwords and take charge via using language to diminish YOU, and elevate them in a management dynamic.

    As a naturally shy guy, I find it important when confronting such power plays to step it up and challenge these pushy Alphas and separate out what they offer vis a vis my own value--sometimes you do have to stand up to these controlling types and stand your ground.

    Again--balance. Be who you are if you're naturally introverted, but develop sufficient verbal and self-esteem skills that project an effective persona to both express your valuable contributions to the group and also protect your interests in the matters at hand without getting bulldozed by some fast-talking "A-Type."

  3. Another passing thought...

    I haven't read the Susan Cain book* so I'm not commenting specifically about it. However, as a generalisation, there seem to be so many books and articles that run along the theme: "We studied senior managers from hundreds of leading companies (i.e. NYSE or FTSE or with minimum sales of $42 squillion) and we draw these conclusions..." But, almost by definition, 95% of us don't work in - or even aspire to - elevated positions in these organisations. So why do we assume that running your own small business or having a senior position in a small or medium sized company or running a function in a large business needs the claimed qualities that apparently got a few people to a few senior positions in a few companies for a few years?

    Great comments from Ken above: find your own voice. I make no bones about stealing ideas from anywhere and adapting / adopting them but I don't follow a one-size-fits-all prescription a mangement writer suggests.

    *yet: I've downloaded on the strength of JGOL's recommendation.

  4. It's been on my "to read" list since it was published, since I knew it was written just for me. Sort of.

    I spent the first 40 years of my life faking the extroversion. I was a slick-talking manipulator, almost always with a positive agenda, but since I was smarter than everyone around me, whatever I had to do to get things my way was obviously correct.

    Then the fake life I'd built collapsed like a wet tissue, and I became myself for the first time in 40 years.

    I'm still a great speaker, good with people, active online. But I do my best work in the quiet, and to do my best work, I feed my introversion healthy doses of alone time, total solitude.

    Business loses out to the degree that it shuts out opposing ideas, mindsets, philosophies. I go my own way these days, and prefer to find parallel travelers rather than butting my head against groupthink.

    I think 3 days driving across the dust bowl has weakened my resolve to speak and write coherently. More time in the swimming pool should resurrect my usual concise clarity.

  5. Well, reading Cain's book encourages me to continue my researching & writing—a welcome break from client work. I now see this as the "introverted phase" of my life—after years of playing the highly visible extrovert (15 years as a musical performer, decades as a consultant/trainer).

    Also, I can apply Cain's insights to my book (while I'm doing final edits). In the book (and blog when I stay on message!), I abstract the success differentials of the great rock artists and show how they can be put to use in business teams & organization. But now I can better include the perspective of the introvert as a member of these teams.

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