Susan Cain Talks about Work and Leadership

Did you know that introverted leaders often deliver better results than extroverts? That the most spectacularly creative people tend to be introverts? That the most innovative thinking happens alone and not in teams? One of the central challenges of any business is to bring out the best in its employees. Yet when it comes to introverts—who make up a third to a half of the workforce—our leadership strategy mainly consists of asking them to act like extroverts. This is a serious waste of talent and energy.

Our own inimitable Susan Cain and Kate Earle addressed these and other issues around leadership and personality in their chat with Training magazine on Quiet Leadership: Harnessing the Strengths of Introverts to Change How We Work, Lead and Innovate. The talk is free to access (they just request your email) and covers the neurological basis of introversion and extroversion, the power of introverts as leaders, how introverts and extroverts can work together more effectively, and more.

If you’re an introvert who works in groups, an extrovert teammate of introverts, or an extrovert or introvert leader, check it out and let us know what you think! Below are also some excerpts from the wide-ranging discussion.

Kate: What motivated you to write on the topic of introversion in the first place? And why do you think your work resonates with so many people?

Susan: Personality style was something I had always been thinking about but I didn’t have a name for it. When I became an adult I practiced corporate law and noticed that so much of the way people showed up in meetings, negotiations, interactions with colleagues, and so on had so much to do with whether we were introverts or extroverts. And yet there was no language for talking about this. Back then the only language for talking about identity was the language of race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.—all of which I believe are incredibly important. And I also felt there was this other gigantic piece that was missing.

So I started doing research and found that among personality psychologists, who agree on almost nothing, the one thing they do agree on is that introversion and extroversion is the most important personality trait. This is true across all cultures. It shapes so much of how we live, interact, work, and love. I really just wanted to get people talking about that. And it turns out the personality psychologists are onto something. You asked why this work resonates with so many people. I think we’re talking about a trait, an aspect of personality that really goes to the core of who we are. And until recently there hasn’t been a socially acceptable way of talking about these differences.

Kate: What is your definition of introversion and how does your definition differ from common perceptions?

Susan: I’m guessing many people are familiar with the definition that pertains to where we get our energy. Introverts get their energy more from being on their own and extroverts get more energy from being out there with others. It’s the idea that we all have a battery that either gets drained or recharged depending on how much social life is coming at you. I think this is largely accurate and helpful as a metaphor but it’s important to understand that it is only a metaphor for what is happening neurobiologically. The fact is that introverts and extroverts really do have different nervous systems. We are wired differently. Introverts have a nervous system that reacts more to all forms of stimulation — whether that’s lights, noise, or social life. They are most productive and comfortable in environments that are less stimulating.

Extroverts are exactly the opposite. They react less to stimulation so it’s easy for them to not be getting enough stimulation, which leads to boredom and feeling sluggish. Extroverts want to get out there and make things happen.

Kate: You write that introverts make great leaders. Can you say more about that?

Susan: Introverts by their nature tend to have a few key passions in their lives and ascend into leadership positions out of a commitment to what they’re doing. They become leaders almost in spite of themselves.  What I would say as a takeaway is to think about the people in your organizations who are really passionate and capable and whether they have so called “natural” leadership skills. I would think about grooming those people and getting them the training and development they need to assume leadership roles and really unlock their talent. From our experience at QLI — working with Fortune 500 companies — we have seen so many highly talented people be overlooked for leadership roles because they didn’t fit the mold. And yet, somewhat ironically, we have also seen that many executive leaders who appear to be extroverts are really introverts in disguise.

Kate: What suggestions do you have for introverts and extroverts to work together more effectively?

Susan: I think a lot of it has to do with being willing to start a conversation. Until recently this whole topic wasn’t socially acceptable to talk about and now the floodgates are opening. I would suggest getting your team to sit down and talk about who you are, the composition of the team, and how you each like to work. For introverts, it’s things like remembering that the extroverts on your team need more time during the day when you check in with one another. Maybe your natural tendency is to keep your head down and stay focused on your work. If that’s who you are, you might want to schedule social break time and at those moments chat with your colleagues.

For extroverts it might be something like knowing that if you want to get the best ideas from introverts you’re probably not going to get that from them at a big meeting. Introverts tend not to want to think out loud. So send them an email to let them know what you want to talk about and give them a chance to prepare their thoughts in advance. Those are just two tips out of so many. The best place to start is really getting that conversation going freely.

Want to hear more? Listen to the entire conversation on Training magazine’s website.