I recently finished reading Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. My interest in the book was partially driven by a desire to learn more about my own deep-seated introversion and what makes me tick, and partially for some practical strategies which would help me leverage my strengths more effectively. I found it to be a very interesting read.
Although it’s sometimes hard to tell in a society that constantly pushes us all to be sociable and outgoing, apparently I’m not alone in my introversion. As Cain points out, research shows that as many as 1 in 3 people are introverts. We’re the ones who tend to prefer one-to-one or small groups instead of large group activities, we need our alone time, we tend to think before we speak and we’re not always good at self-promotion.
There are many environments and circumstances where these traits can add a lot of value, but I’ve found that in the business world, they can sometimes cause a problem. I know in my case, I’ve often felt out-of-place with many of my colleagues and out-of-sync with the organizational ideal. It’s not because I wasn’t smart or likable or personable enough to get noticed or showcase my capabilities. It was because I often felt pressure to socialize and interact with others in a way that just didn’t feel natural to me. By not doing so, I thought I’d miss out on the social relationships that can be so important to getting business done and getting ahead.
Yet, when I did force myself to join in the group activities, it tended to feel very alien to me unless I was able to break off into a much smaller group for more intimate conversations. For the most part, I was able to navigate these events by breaking them into smaller sessions. My strategy, and the benefit I received, was to get to know several people better and to use those encounters to build relationships on a smaller scale. But I was never “the life of the party” and rarely got to know everyone in the larger group.
I say that my introverted traits sometimes caused a problem for me because of what Susan Cain calls “The Myth of Charismatic Leadership.” Drawing on such examples as Tony Robbins seminars and the Harvard Business School, she points out the “extroverted ideal” that is prevalent in so much of our business culture and society where true leaders are seen as out-front, hard-charging and outgoing. Those of us who tend to think things through and don’t join in all the group activities are often seen as too quiet, slow-moving and unsociable.
Anyone who has been in a meeting with me knows I’m not shy about expressing myself or pushing my point-of-view. I usually find a way to be heard and probably interrupt and interject more frequently than I should (I am from New Jersey after all). I do, however, tend to try and let the other person finish and hear his or her position before expressing my own. Although that usually works out OK, it sometimes means I’m not able to get my two-cents in as others jump into the conversation while I wait my turn. So I’ve learned to adjust my style when necessary.
I’ve been able to work with and for some very talented leaders who were quite successful and introverted at the same time. So I don’t buy into the “Extrovert Myth” – at least not completely.
When I left my last corporate CMO role and joined Chief Outsiders as a consultant, I knew I was choosing a profession which would force me to get out of my comfort zone on a regular basis. As a marketer and executive leader, I’ve always had to build strong relationships and be part of a team, but I knew consulting would force me to network in a way that was uncomfortable for me, put me in position to have to build new relationships in a very concentrated way, and to be out-front as the face of the company in many environments. I purposely sought out that environment as one that would help me grow, and overall, I think I’m doing pretty well. I also think that being able to listen and understand the problem and situation helps me as a consultant with my clients and as an entrepreneur and business-builder with Chief Outsiders.
So would I recommend the book?
I would, for several reasons. For fellow introverts, like my children, I think it demonstrates that we all have the capacity to leverage our strengths and not be forced into an artificial ideal. More accomplished introverts than me are better examples; people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Steven Spielberg, and Brenda Barnes from Sara Lee. For my extrovert friends and colleagues, I think it can aid in their understanding of us introverts and suggest some ways to work with and communicate with us more effectively (here’s a nice supplemental piece you might be interested in as well).
Introverts, what strategies do you use to navigate in our extrovert-centric world?
Extroverts, what do you have to say?