Business leaders often look to social activities to generate ideas and innovation, from group collaboration and brainstorming to large meetings and open-format offices. Those who are highly verbal, bold and outgoing often thrive in these environments, in which thinking on your feet and speaking up are valued. In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain draws on research to challenge the “Extrovert Ideal” and many of our most common business practices in which the ideas and leadership potential of introverts are often overlooked. Among the researchers she cites is Wharton management professor Adam Grant, who published a paper in the Academy of Management Journal titled, “Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity,” with coauthors Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and David Hofmann of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Their research concludes that introverted leaders can be more effective than extroverts in certain circumstances. Cain, in a discussion with Grant for Knowledge at Wharton, spoke about the surprising advantages of being an introvert and why companies should create an environment that supports their contributions.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Adam M. Grant: First of all, congratulations on the success of your book, Quiet. I know you have been on the bestseller list for well over a month now and have had a million viewers on your TED talk.
Susan Cain: Thank you, Adam. It is a pleasure to be here with you.
Grant: I’m really excited to have this conversation, in part because when we first started talking about introversion about six years ago, you were just beginning research for your book. In the past six years of research, what is the most interesting or surprising discovery you have made about introverts and extroverts?
Cain: There have been a bunch. One of them has been related to the incredible research that you have done, which is that we have such a perception in this culture of effective leadership … [being] very bold and charismatic and dynamic. It has been interesting to me to see in my research so many examples of really effective leaders who are shy or introverted or both, and to see so much research backing that up. [There are] individual examples of it everywhere I was looking. But there’s also your research and the research of others that shows our very limited idea of what leadership consists of. Leaders who take an approach that’s kind of quiet, but coupled with a fierce will, can be incredibly effective. That was one surprising thing.
The other that was so interesting to me was to learn that there are introverts and extroverts in almost every species of the animal kingdom, all the way down to fruit flies. You see fruit flies who tend to sit still in place and then other fruit flies who roam around in an exploratory way. That is true because these two types of different survival strategies exist in the animal world. But of course, the same thing is true with humans.
Grant: On the former count, when you think about successes of introverted leaders, what are the skill sets and the habits that introverted leaders need to learn in order to be effective or to adapt to an extroverted world?
Cain: I think the primary one that comes to mind is public speaking. By the way, that’s not an issue for all introverts. There really is a subset of introverts who are quite comfortable with public speaking and are naturally very good at it. But introverts in general are disproportionately likely to suffer from stage fright and that kind of thing compared to extroverts. It is doable. It’s a question of desensitizing yourself to the horrors of the spotlight by taking small steps to put yourself in environments where you get to speak in public, but ideally to do it at first in situations that are very mellow and … low key so you can get used to the feeling of all eyes on you without actually having any consequences if you screw up the first bunch of times. You learn after that [experience] that it’s okay to screw up and that you’ll get better with time.
Grant: I would be curious to hear a little bit more about that, especially because you have, shall we say, come out of the introvert closet and spent a lot of time working on your own speaking style. What were some of the techniques and practices that were most helpful in overcoming stage fright?
Cain: As I said, really the number one tip is just making sure that you do it and forcing yourself to. In my case, I joined a local Toastmasters group. For those who aren’t familiar with Toastmasters, it is a worldwide organization where you meet in local chapters either once a week or once every two weeks, and you practice public speaking with a very supportive group. My Toastmasters group meets on every other Thursday night. I found that every other Thursday would roll around, and I would come up with every reason imaginable why I really couldn’t make it that night. There were a lot of nights that I just stayed home. But then there were other nights where I pushed myself to go and was always really glad that I did. The number one thing is showing up.
Another thing that is really important is breathing correctly. I think we all hear about breathing, sometimes in a kumbaya way or in a way that we associate with practices like yoga or meditation. But you really need to be breathing correctly at the podium because, if you don’t, your voice comes out all wrong and you don’t feel as good or as confident. When I started working with a coach, she told me that I was breathing all wrong. When you inhale, the breath should all be coming in so that your belly is filling up like a balloon. If you are more of a nervous speaker, you might be doing exactly the opposite. When you do your inhales, you might have your belly sucking in, and that’s something that’s worth working through.
Grant: Thinking more broadly about the role of introverts in the workplace, one of the points you have made in your book is that many introverts feel pressure to conform to an extrovert ideal. I was curious if you could talk to us a little bit about what a workplace would look like that is better designed for introverts.
Cain: That’s such a good question. Well, the first place I would start is with the office design. A vast majority of our workplaces nowadays are open plan offices where we all work in these environments without walls, and we have very little privacy. I would flip that on its head…. I am not saying that we should have no social interactions; that would be crazy. I think private office spaces should be the default, but when you step outside of that private and personalized space, then you should be in a space that encourages the kind of casual, serendipitous interactions that can give rise to creative breakthroughs.
We all hear about an office like Pixar where Steve Jobs purposely designed it so that even to go to the bathroom you had to go into a big open space where you would be bouncing around with your colleagues. I think that’s a great thing. I’m all for it. I just say the default should be a zone of privacy…. I think the thing that probably works the least for introverts and extroverts alike are the more formal spaces where people come together in formal meetings. Sometimes those serve a purpose, and we all have to do it, of course, but the casual interactions are really the better ones.
The second thing is just the acknowledgement that all of us can think creatively when we are alone and that this needs to be a part of any kind of decision-making process. Any time you are trying to make a decision about something or to get the best of your workers’ brains, you really need to be building into that process a time when employees go off by themselves to think through the problem without the distortions of group dynamics.
Grant: This brings me to a more basic question. I think many of us who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum wonder, how do I know if I am an introvert or an extrovert? I think when people think about introversion, they tend to think about Myers-Briggs. Certainly Carl Jung did us a great service by calling attention to this important trait of personality. At the same time, many experts feel that he missed the boat a little bit in terms of what is the core essence of being an introvert or an extrovert. I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit on what you found in your research and how you would fundamentally define what it means to be an introvert versus an extrovert.
Cain: It’s an important and tricky question because there really are as many definitions of introversion and extroversion as there are personality psychologists. There’s so little agreement about what this trait really is. In some ways, I’m more interested in the trait from a cultural and popular point of view than I am from a specific personality psychology point of view. I think what really matters is how people live in it and feel it in their workplaces and their schools and their personal lives. But having said all that, what I would come down to is that it has to do with differences in how you respond to stimulation, and in particular, social stimulation.
Extroverts really do crave more stimulation than introverts do. They need more stimulation to feel most alive, most excited and most happy. Introverts feel very alive when they are in quieter environments. In fact, there’s an important study by the psychologist Russell Geen who gave people problems to solve and found that the introverts did better when the background noise was lower and the extroverts did better at this problem solving when they were in louder environments. This is a question of stimulation and who does best with how much of it. That’s a profound insight because so many of our workplaces are one-size-fits-all with the amount of background stimulation. Yet all this research is telling us that if we really want to maximize people’s talents, we need to find ways of varying the levels of stimulation that they are subject to so that everybody is in their optimal zone.
Grant: For introverted listeners who don’t always have full control over the amount of stimulation in their environments, what are some steps that they can take to avoid burnout or minimize overload?
Cain: One thing is that you tend to have more control than you think you do once you feel entitled to really look for it. For example, let’s say you know that you have a full morning meeting. Maybe you can take steps to say, “You know what, I’m not going to schedule anything for lunch. I am going to go off and have lunch by myself that day.” To do what our mutual friend and great personality psychologist Brian Little calls [creating] “restorative niches,” which [means] to build places into your day and into work where you can go off and take the breaks that you need. I found some people in my research doing this by wearing noise-canceling headphones if their workplaces allowed it. You can do it in really subtle ways, too.
I was always intrigued by the memoir of Robert Rubin who served as the Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton. He never identifies himself as an introvert, but it is pretty clear that he is if you read his book. He says he would sit in these meetings at Capitol Hill where the MO for most people was to jockey to sit in the most powerful seat in the room at the meeting, and he never wanted to do that. He said he was always most comfortable sitting slightly off to the side. He was de-stimulating things for himself. He said from that position, off on the side, he never felt that he was worried about being overlooked. He said you could always say, “Mr. President, I think this thing or that thing.” But he was situating himself in a place that was comfortable for him. I found that remarkable because I think few people have the self-confidence to do that. Most people feel instead that they should be placing themselves right in the center even if that is not what is natural for them.
Grant: That’s fascinating. You made a comment at the beginning of that story about how he did not quite identify himself as an introvert. I think this is a dilemma for a lot of us when we come to work with new people or we join an unfamiliar team: How much self-disclosure should we do? What’s your view on the degree to which introverts and extroverts should be clear about where they stand on the personality continuum?
Cain: I think this is such a tricky question. I was struck by Douglas Conant who recently stepped down as CEO of Campbell Soup Company and was very, very effective and beloved there. He posted a blog post for Harvard Business Review, and he talks about having been a shy and introverted leader. He says that it was very effective for him to tell his employees and his colleagues that this is who he was so that they would not mistake his demeanor for aloofness or uncaring. For him, that really worked.
But he was in a position of leadership where he already had respect. Can you get away with that right from the get-go? I think that that requires a pretty astute reading of what the social dynamics are like in your organization, whether people are open to those kinds of discussions or not. I do think that it helps to establish relationships and establish credibility before you have those discussions. Then once that groundwork has been laid, it can be incredibly helpful to talk about these things in an open way. But, if you are describing yourself as an introvert, you need to make sure you are not doing it in an apologetic way or in a way that puts you down for your introversions, but rather, just neutrally describing a personality style.
Grant: You have mentioned that you are interested in this topic from a cultural perspective. Are there cultures outside of the United States that you have been especially impressed by in terms of their equal embrace of introverts and extroverts?
Cain: In my book, I spent a whole chapter actually comparing Far Eastern styles of interaction and personality with the West. It is really quite different in traditional Far Eastern cultures, particularly in the Confucian belt, China and Japan and so on, because in these cultures, group dynamics are organized completely differently. The group is much more important than the individual. Though that would sound as if it lends itself to gregariousness, it is actually in some ways the opposite because if what you care about is harmony in your group, then for each individual speaking out and calling attention to [himself or herself] is not only less important, it is also threatening to the group. In these cultures, there is a long tradition of viewing words as potentially dangerous weapons because they can get their speaker into trouble and they can hurt other people’s feelings. People who are naturally more predisposed to silence are often seen as being very wise and judicious and reserved. This percolates into all different aspects of social interaction.
In fact, there’s one fascinating study where they compared Chinese schoolchildren with kids in Canada. They found that in China, the children who were shy were respected and admired among their peers. In Canada, of course, it was just the opposite. Now the interesting thing is that this is actually starting to change. This study was repeated a few years ago, and the results are now starting to look much more Western. But I think we still do see these differences to a great extent even today.
Grant: What would you say are the most inaccurate stereotypes that introverts and extroverts hold of each other?
Cain: That’s a great question. I think introverts are perceived by extroverts as shy, and they are not necessarily. The person who is sitting quietly in a meeting might be quiet because they are shy and afraid of what other people think of them. But they might be quiet just because they do not do their best in that kind of a think-on-your-feet, quick-moving conversation type of environment. They might just do better when things proceed more slowly and deliberately.
I will say introverts sometimes see extroverts as shallow, and that is a really unfair perception. Extroverts, almost by definition, like to think on their feet, and if you are thinking on your feet, you end up saying a bunch of things that are only half cogitative. But that doesn’t mean that comes from a shallow place; that just means that you are vocalizing your thought process. The same things that introverts are thinking inside their heads that no one else gets to hear, extroverts are saying out loud. That means that you are presenting completely different things to the people who are hearing you. But the end result of your thoughts might be equally deep and profound.
Grant: That is a very helpful distinction. Susan, do you have any burning questions about introversion and extroversion that have yet to be answered?
Cain: I think we are only at the very beginning of the line of research that you are on, Adam, with introversion and leadership. I think there’s so much more that we can know about what kinds of situations are best suited to introverts and extroverts and how they can most effectively partner with each other. That’s something that I hope there will be more research on in the future. I have always been intrigued by leadership pairs that are really effective. For example, at Facebook you see Mark Zuckerberg, very introverted, working alongside Sheryl Sandberg, who is famously a people person, and that seems to be a very effective duo. How can we get these kinds of pairs to come together more frequently? What are the tools that they need to work together at their best? I think all these questions are ripe for further investigation.
Grant: Do you think the same dynamics are important at lower levels of an organization?
Cain: I think that they are important all the way through. They are important any time human beings interact with each other, so low, middle and high. I’ve come to believe that introversion and extroversion are as fundamental to who we are and to our identities as gender.
Grant: You spent six years researching and writing the book, and now you have been coming out of your comfort zone to speak about it quite frequently. What has changed in the way that you operate on a daily basis as an introvert based on all that you have learned?
Cain: Well, that’s interesting. I don’t know that anything has changed. It has changed in that I’m spending my days differently now because I have been on a book tour for the last couple of months. Before that, my day would consist of getting up in the morning and taking my laptop to a café and sitting and writing. Now my day consists of giving interviews by phone or in person and making speeches. My day is very different. But my inner being feels exactly the same. It just feels like I’m using different tools. I think that’s an important thing to say because I often have people say to me, well, I’ve changed. I’m more extroverted now because now I am giving more talks or now I spend my days on conference calls. But I think it’s important to be in touch with actually who you really are, and I think that’s sometimes very different from the role that you are playing. It is useful to know when you are simply playing a role and when you are inhabiting your true self. We all have to play roles. I think that is a very healthy part of being human. If you are a parent, you are playing a role to your child some of the time. When you are disciplining your child, you might not actually feel as stern as you are appearing to your child. You might actually think the thing your child has done is very funny, but you can’t show how funny you think it was. We need to inhabit those roles. But I think we also need to remember that we actually thought the thing the child did was funny. If that makes sense by analogy.
Grant: Absolutely. I’m also wondering, from your perspective, are there things that we ought to know when we think about running a meeting and recognize that there are often a mix of introverts and extroverts in the room?
Cain: First of all, introverts generally need time to think. They don’t think on their feet as readily or as happily. It is really useful to let people know in advance what you are going to be talking about at the meeting, and to do that in more than a pro forma way, like send around an agenda that no one looks at until they get there. It would be useful to actually have people sit down and think through the thing that you are going to be talking about at the meeting before they get there. Then, on the other side of the meeting, to avoid making a decision at the meeting partly because if there is pressure to make a decision, you are inherently going to be giving more weight to the more impulsive, more decisive people in the room. But also because things are going to come up at the meeting that need to be thought through and cogitated. The introverts, in particular, won’t be able to do that as readily while they are in the meeting. You want to give people [an opportunity] to think things through and then to talk with each other about it after the meeting is done.
There are companies that have started to think these things through in interesting ways, like Rite Solutions, which is a software development company run by a guy named Jim Lavoie. He had previously been at a different company where he found that the people who he calls the quiet geniuses in the company weren’t getting heard when they had new ideas that they thought the company should be pursuing because the main avenue for introducing new ideas was to make a presentation to what was called the murder boards. It was the job of the murder board to assess these ideas, and I guess, execute you if they thought the ideas weren’t good enough. He said that this had the effect of rewarding the best presenters and not necessarily the best ideas.
In his new company, he has an online stock market where everybody in the company, all the way down to the level of receptionist, has stock in this market, and they can all introduce ideas online, and they can all use their nominal cash to invest in other people’s ideas. All of this happens online so that, even if you are more of a quiet person, you can introduce your ideas in this way. Some of the company’s greatest innovations have come through this process.
Grant: That’s a fascinating process. Susan, thank you very much for joining us today.
Cain: You are so welcome. It was a pleasure.