Leading the ‘Quiet’ Revolution

An interview with international best-selling author Susan Cain

Leading the Quiet revolution
Photograph of author Susan Cain delivering a TED talk
Photo: Steve Jurvetson
Last January 2012, the book with the unassuming title, Quiet, created shockwaves in the literary and business worlds and landed on numerous best-seller lists for 2012. Accompanied by a riveting TED talk, which landed on Bill Gates’ list of personal favourites, Susan Cain took centre stage, headlining a variety of high-profile conferences and events with her impassioned plea for the world to pay more attention to introverts. Drawing on research in biology, psychology, neuroscience and evolution, she persuasively argued that introversion should not be viewed in a negative light; rather, it should be celebrated for its many benefits. Indeed, in the best possible world, there would be more balance between introverts and extroverts.

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Cain. Her transparency and passion were immediately evident. Given Your Workplace’s commitment to building and fostering positive work environments, I thought our readers would benefit greatly from her insights.

Craig: What are the main things that organizations need to do to tap into the strengths of introverted leaders in the workplace?

Susan: One of the main things I would say is to look out for, and groom, introverted leaders in the first place because I know from management research and from anecdotal experience that it is usually extroverts who are identified for leadership roles. This is a real mistake because organizations are missing out on the talents of potentially great leaders.

It is also important to reconsider hiring policies, because so often the person who talks really well in interviews may or may not be the best person for the job. A lot of what I am recommending is consciousness-raising—that people who are a little quieter have a lot to add.

I believe we are now sitting on the next great diversity revolution of our time. We all know the keys for gender and racial diversity. We know it is a moral issue, but also a bottom line issue and the same thing is true with personality diversity. And we need to recognize that companies need the talent and the quiet thinkers in their workplaces. So I am calling for a revised diversity outlook.

Organizations that get out in front of it will be painted as pioneers, as they will be making the most of their talents which their competitors are not.

Craig: How can organizations groom introverted leaders?

Susan: It’s a combination of teaching them [the introverts]how to be ‘pretend’ extroverts when they need to be; meaning getting public speaking training if you need it. Also, tips on how they handle networking events.

Equally as important is teaching people how to draw on their own natural strengths. Just for example, Douglas Conant, who was until recently the CEO of Campbell’s Soup, describes himself as being both shy and introverted. One of the things he is famous for doing is that he would sit and write personal notes of thanks to employees in the company who had really contributed. During the ten years that he was with Campbell, he wrote 30,000 of these personal letters, which is something really no extrovert would have the patience to do! He was drawing on his own set of strengths to make a very deep connection with his employees. This is just one example of how you can draw on your strengths.

Craig: What has the response been like to your core message?

Susan: People are so incredibly receptive to the messages. I think that is because people understand that if you want to manage a company well you want to be making the most of the introverted half of the population. So, there is no reason to be resistant to the message, because it is in everybody’s interest.

I am calling for a yin and yang between introverts and extroverts. Companies do best when you really have the two working together. We know from management research that the most effective teams are a mix of the two.

Craig: Have there been any audiences who have been more or less receptive to the message?

Susan: It has received the same reaction across the board. The book speaks to many different people. It speaks to parents, it speaks to students, it speaks to teachers, to business people, and of all those groups, it is probably the business world that has responded with the most passion.

Before I was writing this book—back when I was a consultant—I was working for one company and I was chatting with someone in HR and she said “we want to hire really creative people for this company.” I said “that’s great, what do you mean by creative? Who are you looking for?” She said “Well, you know, people who are really outgoing, really lively and really jazzed up.”

And it really struck me at the time, because I thought, wow, why are you so sure that’s what equals creative? Sure enough, I did some research and found out that this was not right, and that many of the most creative people have been quite introverted.

I think people get that once you present this message to them. I think there is such a focus nowadays on needing to retain an edge and foster innovation that I have found people to be very receptive to new messages about who is innovative and why.

Craig: What is a subtler message in the book you would like to highlight?

Susan: One such message is the innate caution of many introverts. By nature, introverts tend to inspect and reflect before they act, and in our culture that is not considered very glamorous. In our workplaces we really lionize the people who are bold and decisive, marching forward. They act first and think later a little bit.

I would argue that this culture and the extent of lionization of that trait is what led us to the problems of 2008 and the extent of risk-taking that we see in general.

I think there is tremendous value in being the bold, risk-taking person, but we also need a greater sense of balance between that person and the cautious person.

Craig: What have you learned about yourself through this process?

Susan: I guess one thing is that I now have a second career as a public speaker, which is the craziest thing in the world [for an introvert]. If you told me one year ago that this would be a big plank of my career, I would have thought that was insane and that it would never happen. So, that’s actually been a surprise to know that I would be able to overcome the fear, not completely, but to overcome it as much as I have been able to. I don’t think I could have predicted that.

It’s an amazing privilege beyond what I would have expected.

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