Q&A: Author Susan Cain on "the power of introverts" in business and beyond

Susan Cain, an expert on introversion, spoke with us about introverts in and outside the workplace and revealed what their intuitive behaviors can teach us all about leadership and innovation.
Written by Molly Petrilla, Contributing Writer

With their quiet, reflective natures and preference for alone time, introverts are often overshadowed by the more outspoken, extroverted half of Americans. Yet Susan Cain, with abundant data behind her, says introverts can make outstanding leaders. She's spoken on the subject at Microsoft, Google and the U.S. Treasury, and she's also the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. A former Wall Street lawyer and self-professed introvert, Cain spoke with us about introverts in the workplace and revealed what their intuitive behaviors can teach us all about leadership and innovation.

What were your goals in writing Quiet?

My biggest goal was to give introverts permission to be themselves. Many introverts go through the world feeling like they should be more extroverted than they actually are. They even lose sight of how they prefer to spend their time. That sense of I should be looms very large for introverts. That's what I wanted to do with the book: get rid of that word should.

The other goals are broader and more societal. I'm really hoping that schools and workplaces will change the way that they think about these personality styles and about the best way of cultivating people.

You mention in Quiet that corporate America isn't a very welcoming place for introverts. What changes would you suggest to make them more comfortable and productive at work?

I believe that open office plans are a disaster. They're terrible for extroverts, but they're especially bad for introverts. There's a huge new trend with people actually saying [open offices] may not be a good idea; we need to rethink how we design office space. That's incredibly gratifying and exciting. A 'best office' is one that would give people a choice of how much stimulation is coming at them at any one time. I would create an office that has lots of nooks and crannies, lots of zones of privacy, but also lots of zones where people can come together and schmooze and hang out.

Another thing is that when people work on projects, there should be more of a tolerance for people working on their own. I think it's okay to work on a team, but within that team, the individual members need to be able to go off by themselves and do their own things and have a lot of autonomy and more privacy.

There's also a widely held belief that introverts don't make good CEOs. Tell me about what you discovered on that subject.

There's new research out that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do because when they're managing proactive, creative employees they're more likely to let those people run with their ideas as opposed to putting their own top-down ideas on the whole operation.

In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins profiled 11 top-performing companies. He tried to figure out what distinguished these companies and he found that every one of them was led by what he calls a "level-five leader." This means a leader who has great strength of will but was also described as being shy or modest, self-effacing, humble, unassuming. There seems to be something very potent about that combination of qualities.

Introverts should be groomed more often for leadership positions. We know from this research that they often make the best leaders. That's counter-intuitive, so introverts tend not to advance as high as extroverts do. But when introverts are doing what they do best, they often lead quite effectively.

What advice do you have for managers who undoubtedly lead introverts as well as extroverts?

If you're trying to hear the best of an introvert's brain, you're usually better off communicating one-on-one or in writing as opposed to in a big, all-hands meaning. Of course, there are times when you need a big all-hands meeting. Be really careful about how you structure those. Send out agendas in advance and ask people to prepare based on those agendas. You want to give introverts a chance to prepare for the meeting and then inside the meeting, you might try stopping for a minute every so often and giving everybody time to think and write down their ideas. Then go around the room and hear from people. That will help to create safe spaces for people who don't like to think quickly and don't like to jockey their way into a conversation.

You mention quite a few famous introverts in Quiet. Who was your most surprising discovery?

Guy Kawasaki. He's a serial entrepreneur, former chief evangelist of Apple and a leading-light figure in Silicon Valley. He has 2.6 million followers on Google Plus. He's known to be this very sociable, seemingly outgoing, effervescent character and yet he says he's a total loner and introvert and that the reason he loves social media is because he can stay at home in the dark and communicate with his followers.

You've spoken about introversion at Google, Microsoft and the U.S. Treasury. What sort of things did you tell them?

I try to get people to rethink their assumptions from the ground up about who is effective, who is creative, who is capable and who you want on your team. I give them tools for challenging their assumptions that the more sociable, outward person is always the better way to go.

Which of those audiences seemed the most receptive?

I think they all are, honestly. When I first started writing about this, I had this idea that I was probably writing into a very hostile space and it would take a lot of persuasion. I have not found that. I've found corporate America to be incredibly receptive to these ideas. I'm actually now optimistic.

What do introverts know intuitively about creativity and innovation that could help the rest of us?

The number-one thing is that they go off and work by themselves. We know from research that when psychologists look at who the most creative people have been across a wide variety of fields, they're usually people who have the ability to go off and work in solitude. Introverts really have that advantage because even if they find themselves in a corporate culture where they are expected to work in teams, just because of their nature they will find ways to go off by themselves. That is a crucial ingredient of creativity that most people are not getting enough of.

Looking beyond the corporate world, what would you most like to see change as a result of Quiet and other research into introversion?

I want to see a different world for the next generation of quiet children. I think it's really children who bare the brunt of our bias against introversion. From the time children are very young, they are sent the message that they should enjoy participating in big, rowdy group activities. They're expected to go to school every day — which is in itself a big, rowdy group activity — and they're not really expected to crave downtime from all of this. It's a profound misunderstanding of who these children are. The kids who want to go off by themselves or play quietly with one or two friends instead of a big, merry gang are often seen as problem cases and they're not. They're just normal introverts. It's a really big problem that I would like to change.

You're a self-professed introvert. How have you handled the publicity that's come along with Quiet?

I really, really care about the ideas in the book, so I can transcend whatever discomfort I might have about doing all these things by focusing on this message that I really want to be conveying. The other thing is I really like people, so for me doing a one-on-one interview is fine and happy. What's hard for me is doing too many of them. I start to get tired. I've learned just to pace myself. At the beginning of the book tour I was also kind of scared. It's scary to be in the spotlight. I found that that fear goes away after a while. You just get used to it.

Photo by Aaron Fedor

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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