Should extroverts learn to sit down and shut up?
"Without great solitude, no serious work is possible." —Pablo Picasso
I once watched a facilitator separate approximately 100 trainers into two groups—Myers-Briggs-typed extroverts and introverts—based on where they reported focusing their attention. The big group of "Es" occupied most of the room, bonding aggressively with one another, while the "Is" huddled silently in a corner, looking embarrassed and probably wishing they could escape to someplace quiet and read a book about introversion that did not make it sound like a sickness.
Well, that book has finally been written. It's called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. The author, Susan Cain, a former corporate lawyer and consultant, writes about people whose tendency toward solitary activity and quiet reflection marks them as having "a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology." She asserts that society is held in thrall to the "Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight."
If that sounds like a description of a trainer, it should. Many presenters fall on the extroversion side of the Myers-Briggs I/E scale.
A disproportionately high number of very creative people are introverts. Their ability to sit still and think quietly helps introverts to earn better grades in high school and college than extroverts, and individuals working alone are usually more productive than groups. But schools and workplaces make it difficult for people to find time and space for quiet reflection. Ubiquitous communication gadgets and pressure to multitask only compound the struggle to remove oneself from the information stream to think and reflect.
Phyllis Korkki, writing in The New York Times, predicted that workers would display "device backlash" when the number of gadgets and apps they use interfered with efficiency and job satisfaction. Introverts in particular may be the most desperate to unplug from tools such as the next iteration of Windows that will continually show what's coming in from Twitter and Facebook.
Extroversion is the norm in many kinds of leadership training, both as a way to behave in class and as a characteristic of model leaders. At Harvard Business School, the essence of leadership education is that leaders have to act confidently and make decisions in the face of incomplete information. Students are expected to debate and challenge one another in class.
Cain notes, "If a student talks often and forcefully, then he's a player; if he doesn't, he's on the margins." Grades and social status are determined by how much a person speaks up. Professors trade tips on how to get students to talk more. This approach makes sense in the prevailing U.S. business culture where verbal fluency and sociability are the two most important predictors of success, according to a Stanford Business School study. But is it the best or the only course?
Cain argues that introverts possess certain attributes, such as creativity, innovation, and high productivity, which make them valuable in the workplace. For introverts, who are comfortable working alone, solitude is a catalyst to innovation, writes Cain. For them, being part of too many teams and committees may not be the most productive way to work.
Cain writes, "Some teamwork is fine and offers a fun, stimulating, useful way to exchange ideas, manage information, and build trust. But it's one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it's another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers."
Although one-third to one-half of Americans are introverted, more than 70 percent of U.S. offices use open space plans (cubicles and pods). Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure, and distracted. Cain is skeptical of claims that close and frequent contact promotes creativity across the board. She cites research showing that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. People whose work is interrupted make more mistakes and take twice as long to finish.
The new groupthink
Cain also challenges the idea that collaboration at work is conducive to creativity. She refers to the "rise of the new groupthink" as a trend that may stand in the way of creativity and innovation at work.
Brainstorming, a popular activity in training classes and meetings, has been shown to be a poor generator of creativity. And group activities fare no better. Cain cites research showing that individuals almost always perform better than groups in quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as the size of a group increases.
She quotes organizational psychologist Adrian Furhnam: "The evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."
One exception, notes Cain, is electronic brainstorming, in which large groups outperform individuals, and the larger the group, the better the performance. She credits the Internet's power to allow people to "be alone together."
Cain recommends moving beyond groupthink to embrace a "more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafÃ©-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces" when being alone would support better performance.
Multitasking, taken by some to be a sign of mental acuity, also is increasingly under recent attack. In a post on Psychology Today's Prime Your Gray Cells blog, Teresa Aubele and Susan Reynolds argue that scattering attention among tasks is a bad idea, not just because it's difficult to keep up the juggling routine but also because it saps our ability to think creatively. "The more tasks you add, the less efficient your brain is, and the less likely it is to focus on the most important task," they write.
The average office worker at a desk, researchers have found, experiences no more than three minutes at a time without interruption. The average American spends at least 8.5 hours in front of a TV or computer screen, reports Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows. The more information that floods over us, the less of ourselves we have to give to it. Carr writes that after spending time in quiet, rural settings, "Subjects exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and general improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper." Is it time to bring back the executive retreat?
Fine-tuning your I-to-E ratio
A field of psychology called Free Trait Theory posits that we are born with certain personality traits, such as introversion, but we can act out of character in the service of "core personal projects," according to Brian Little, a personality psychologist and professor at Cambridge University. In other words, it's not only OK, but often necessary, to depart from personality type. For example:
- As a manager, balance your need to lead with the needs of some to be left alone to reflect.
- As a trainer, aim for a balance of power between those who rush to speak and do, and those who sit and think. Be aware that forced collaboration—breaking people into groups—is not best for everyone.
- As a person, whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, address the challenge of retaining focus by setting limits on the time spent networking, tweeting, blogging, texting, and falling into the vortex of Google searches.
For an extreme correction, try going solo as a consultant, contractor, or freelancer. But enforce your own productivity—a challenge for many independent workers—by building structure into your workday with time to think and reflect, time to get work done, and time to socialize with others in your profession. And if all else fails, consider using Freedom, a $10 software app that locks you out of the Internet for up to eight hours.