Don’t underestimate the value of introverts in the workplace

By Pat Sisneros and Juergen Kniefel

Is it possible that the long-held belief among corporate chiefs and entrepreneurs that creativity and innovative ideas are best generated by collaborative teams is just plain wrong?

Susan Cain’s extraordinary new book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” makes some very persuasive arguments against the conventional wisdom about creativity and teams.

Hundreds of new business titles are published each year, but it’s rare to find in any new book ideas that turn conventional wisdom on its head. Cain’s book does this and more. We predict her ideas will change the way many people lead and manage.

Her book begins by describing why our society places such a huge value on being extroverted. This bias is communicated and ingrained in all of us starting at a young age. The results? Just look at our celebrity culture, reality television, the Facebook phenomenon and how today’s workplace is organized. Everything about the workplace is about supporting the needs of extroverts.

Every manager wants their employees to be more people-oriented. We even try to train our more reserved employees to be more gregarious and outgoing. The introverted employee is often looked upon negatively. Reserved employees need to be more extroverted in order to advance within the company.

The business philosophy of today is about creating structures to support collaborative teams. It is assumed that these teams are the best mechanism for generating the new ideas that will find success in the marketplace.

“Most of us now work in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all,” Cain writes. “Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.”

Cain argues that this thinking is incorrect and that a workplace driven entirely by hyper-collaborative teams and open workspaces places a significant portion of their employees in a work environment that they aren’t comfortable with. An extrovert thrives in a team environment while the introvert typically does not, yet this is the type of environment the business gurus have been preaching for the past 20 years.

“Don’t expect introverts to get jazzed up about open office plans or for that matter lunchtime birthday parties or team-building retreats,” Cain writes.

She has concluded that organizations large and small don’t understand the needs of introverts, don’t value their contributions, and therefore are wasting an important resource. Typically a third to a half of folks at any organization are introverted.

Cain recommends that you “make the most of introverts’ strengths; these are people who can help you think deeply, strategize, solve complex problems and spot canaries in your coal mine. Don’t mistake assertiveness and eloquence for good ideas.”

Cain isn’t anti-team. However, she does believe that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of creating team environments, that there needs to be a more healthy balance between collaborative team time and time for employees to work independently. Such a balance will create a more harmonious and productive work environment because it satisfies the needs of both the extroverts and introverts in your organization.

Cain suggests you can generate good ideas and maintain this balance by “asking your employees to solve problems alone before sharing ideas. If you want wisdom of the crowd, gather it electronically, or in writing and make sure people can’t see each other’s ideas until everyone’s had a chance to contribute. Face-to-face contact is important because it builds trust, but group dynamics contain unavoidable impediments to creative thinking.”

What do you think? Does your workplace take advantage of the inherent strengths of introverts? Has the pendulum swung too far in creating team environments and open workspaces? Send your comments to entrepreneur ship@everettcc.edu.

Pat Sisneros is the vice president of College Services at Everett Community College. Juergen Kneifel is a senior associate faculty member in the EvCC Business program.