The gregarious, larger-than-life leadership mould needs to be challenged, says New York Times best-selling author Susan Cain. It’s time we elevated quiet leaders.
Standing on that iconic red dot, lights blaring down with a crowd of hundreds staring on in anticipation, Susan Cain was well and truly outside of her comfort zone.
She had just spent seven years researching and writing her book, ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’. As a self-proclaimed introvert, the idea of years spent in her own company working on a passion project was pure bliss.
The irony, of course, is that when you write a best-selling book about being quiet and sell over two million copies world-wide, you have to be the opposite of quiet about it. Promotion tours, interviews and, if you’re lucky (or unlucky, depending how you view it), Ted Talks become part and parcel of your day-to-day life.
As Cain was preparing to deliver hers on the power of introverts, she recalls feeling “quite terrified”.
“Even very seasoned public speakers, people who are never scared of it the way I was, freak out a little bit about Ted. You’re on that red circle all by yourself [and] it can feel like an intimidating setup. A lot of those people who might seem very calm really aren’t when you see them backstage.”
After her Ted Talk – which has since amassed over 28 million views – the floodgates opened and Cain was well and truly thrust into the public spotlight. In the nine years since then, she’s become “perfectly fine” with public speaking – she’s desensitised to it now.
Now a seasoned public speaker, Cain will be sharing her message about harnessing the strength of introverts and quiet employees at AHRI’s Convention TRANSFORM 2021 in August.
Understanding the difference
Perhaps the most common misconception about this topic is that introversion and shyness are inextricably linked. The idea that all introverts are terrified of social interaction or lack self-confidence simply isn’t true. You can be a shy introvert; you can be a shy extrovert. It’s all about where you derive your energy from.
“Introversion is about the preference for quieter, mellower environments and for getting your energy through solitude, interactions with smaller groups of people, or work that you love to do,” says Cain.
The two are often conflated because “there’s a shared bias in our society against both traits”, says Cain.
In saying this, a lot of Cain’s work also focuses on those who are shy because she thinks our workplaces also need to do a better job of catering to shy folk. So while shyness and introversion sometimes overlap, it’s important we view them as separate personality traits.
A good way to think of it is like this: you might be someone who thrives in a professional networking setting. You’re working the room, socialising up a storm. You’re confident conversing with your peers and rubbing shoulders with the bigwigs, but when it’s all over, all you want to do is head home and curl up on the couch for the weekend. In this case, you might be a confident introvert.
Extroverts, on the other hand, are more likely to want to continue chasing the rush they feel from surrounding themselves with others – they might head out to the after-work drinks following the event, or pack their schedules to the brim with social events that weekend.
“Introverted leaders, if they’re managing proactive employees, are more likely to solicit the ideas of those employees and run with them, as opposed to an extroverted leader, who will… [put] their own stamp on things.” – Susan Cain, author of Quiet.
Next, it’s important to understand that most people will sit along the spectrum of what experts call “the north and south of temperament” – people aren’t purely extroverted or introverted and some are ambiverts, placed squarely in the middle.
It’s also important to acknowledge that being introverted isn’t a choice – it’s actually hardwired into our neurobiology, Cain explains. Introverts have a more reactive nervous system and are more sensitive to the various stimuli they’re exposed to, she says, whereas extroverts’ nervous systems are less reactive.
Embracing quiet leaders
There are plenty of reasons to embrace introverts as leaders, says Cain. They are thought to be highly creative, great at observing social behaviours and effective at leading others.
In the era of remote work, introverted leaders could become even more of an asset, Cain posits. For example, things they might have been less comfortable doing in the physical workspace, such as presenting to a large group of people, become easier when you’re dialing in from the comfort of your own home.
Many introverts also prefer to lead smaller groups, rather than “being the one who infuses a bolt of energy into the group when they enter the room”. We know that establishing connections in a remote workplace can be difficult, so having someone at the helm who understands the importance of being intentional with your actions and values one-on-one time can make all the difference.
“I think of somebody like Douglas Conant as an example. He was the CEO at Campbell’s Soup for a long time [until 2011]. He’s very shy and very introverted. He used to find out who the employees were who had really been contributing and would then send them personal letters of thanks and appreciation.
“Those letters meant so much to people. He was often writing them while he was commuting to work, so it wasn’t as [emotionally] taxing for him [as in-person meetings], but he still could show how much he cares.”
Research has also found introverts are better leaders “in a dynamic, unpredictable environment”. This is especially true when they are paired with proactive team members.
“Introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverted leaders do,” says Cain. “One reason for this is that introverted leaders, if they’re managing proactive employees, are more likely to solicit the ideas of those employees and run with them, as opposed to an extroverted leader, who will, by virtue of having a more dominant or irrepressible personality, be putting their own stamp on things.”
Cain clarifies that not all extroverted leaders will do this, and most will theoretically be open to elevating other people’s ideas. It’s just that introverts tend to give more space to other people’s point of views. They’re not in the spotlight because they want to be but because they have something important to say.
It can be difficult to rise in the ranks as a softly spoken employee. In her book, Cain points to research which shows that larger-than-life, gregarious types are thought of as more likeable and competent in their roles, whereas their quieter counterparts are often described using negative descriptions such as being “ungainly” or “having skin problems”, a reflection of the archetypal ‘school nerd or shy kid’ we’re fed through popular culture since childhood.
Changing these perceptions begins at the hiring stage, says Cain.
Instead of assessing candidates for their abilities to think quickly and on the spot, she suggests giving them an idea of the questions you’d like to ask ahead of the interview so they can prepare – unless these skills are an inherent requirement of the role.
“Also, [do] additions for job interviews, where they’re actually performing the role in question, as opposed to sitting around and chatting, which we know doesn’t really work anyway.”
We also need to get the message out there to those who wield the power that introverts are often passed over for leadership opportunities for reasons that have nothing to do with their competency levels.
“I always say that every manager should think of one person they know in the company who is very dedicated and talented – [someone] who’s not a so-called ‘natural leader’? Could you sit down with that person and find out what their true ambitions are – what their true goals are? What could you do to help that person along the way? And a lot of the time, it’s small tweaks, like making sure they have a little bit of extra visibility in a meeting… so next time you might give them something to lead in a meeting.”
The person might need a little training, she adds, such as enrolling them in a public speaking training, but investing in great talent almost always pays you back tenfold. Cain is the perfect example of how far you can get with a little bit of practice: from a phobia to the Ted stage.
Not only do we need to cater to introverts in the recruitment and succession process, we also need to design work to better accommodate them.
“It’s really important to have spaces where there’s a mix of social and quiet, private space that people can move freely back and forth between as they wish.
“It starts with the physical, but then it also goes to how we structure the actual work day. We could structure it so there are times of the day when there’s going to be team meetings and conference calls… but other times are reserved for quiet and reflective ‘head down’ work.
“Putting those kinds of structures in place has a practical effect, but it also has the emotional effect of sending out the signal that we’re making space for all our different styles.”
The history of the extrovert
So how did the loud, gregarious leadership archetype first come about?
“When I first started researching my book, I wanted to figure out if the human preference for extroversion was evolutionary or cultural. I found a lot of evidence for the cultural argument.”
Back in the 19th Century, in the western world, the preference for extroversion was much less pronounced as we lived in what historians refer to as ‘the culture of character’.
“That was a situation where people were living in small towns with people they knew well, so they judged each other more on the content of their character,” says Cain.
“But what happened in the 20th century, as we left our small towns and moved out to big cities where people didn’t know each other, [was that] the impression you were making on others became much more important.”
This is when we entered the culture of personality.
“If you look at the self help books from the 19th century compared to the 20th century, the 19th century ones use words like ‘honour’, ‘integrity’ and ‘character’. And then the 20th century self help books are more about ‘magnetism’, ‘charisma’ and likeability.
“We just started to cultivate the reverence for the larger-than-life personality. So somebody who was an introvert and quieter [or] more reflective, you know, just didn’t fit that bill.”
While this personality type has dominated at the top of the org chart for decades now, Cain says things are starting to change.
Shifting the dial
When Cain first wrote her book, she hoped it would be like the early literature on feminism – one person puts their opinion out there and a movement is born. And that’s what she’s starting to see.
“In the last ten years, there has been much more of a focus [on this topic] – people actually want to call themselves an introvert,” says Cain. “A friend of mine teaches at Harvard Business School and she used to give a personality test as part of her leadership course. She said in the old days no one would admit to being an introvert. They would answer the test questions in such a way that it would mark them as an extrovert. [But] that doesn’t happen anymore.”
Considering our workplaces are a tapestry of personality types, it’s encouraging to see an array of personality types are having their time in the sun. It seems we’re moving away from the cookie-cutter leadership mould and learning to not only embrace different temperaments, but design work in a way that allows each group to flourish.
Want to know where you sit? Check out Susan Cain’s list of questions to determine where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.