Book Review: “Quiet” by Susan Cain

Amazon link here. And here’s her TED talk.

A full semester after rebuffing multiple recommendations from a friend to read this book, I finally relented and read Quiet by Susan Cain.

As someone who leans introvert, I really enjoyed it!

It helped me deconstruct the “extrovert ideal” that I had been chasing my whole life. It helped me find ways I could leverage my introversion, whilst making sure that I consistently recharged my mental bandwidth (introverts recharge with alone time, free of external interruptions).

The book expertly weaves in a multitude of studies to show contexts in which introverts can match or actually be superior to their extrovert counterparts.

One study in particular stood out to me: it suggested that introverts were more receptive towards ideas from proactive subordinates.

Participants were tasked with two confederates (part of the experiment) to fold up shirts. Several minutes in, one of the confederates suggests a different way to fold the shirts. He explains that it will take a minute to learn the new method, but it will substantially speed up the process.

As it turns out, the introverts in the study were more likely to listen to the idea and implement it. In contrast, extroverts outperformed introverts when subordinates were not proactive.

Leveraging introversion in a corporate world that values extroversion

Unfortunately, despite all the specific situations where introverts show distinct strengths, the workplace and even the definition of the ideal employee tends to skew extrovert. Extroverts are more likely to air their ideas during meetings (introverts presumably have a similar quantity and quality of ideas; they are simply less likely to express them verbally). Many companies (unintentionally) conflate leadership material with extroverted behavior.

When met by assertive or even aggressive coworkers (when expressing ideas), introverts are more likely to minimize: to remain silent, feign agreement, and only converse privately in hallway talk. Managers should be very cognizant that achieving high Conversational Capacity in teams necessitates finding ways to encourage introverts to speak up.

This could entail providing ideas on notecards, or using the keyboard instead of the voice to provide ideas and air reservations. It may also involve allying with an extroverted coworker, who can air the idea on an introvert’s behalf (be sure there is mutual trust first!)

At the end of the day, however, we introverts need to be comfortable with voicing our values, asserting our boundaries, and defusing workplace conflict when it happens. The workplace, after all, is a fundamentally social setting! One way to do so, as illustrated by Claude Mongeau, the former CEO of Canadian National Railway, is to set “the goal of acting like an extrovert five times a day.

Indeed, Susan Cain recommends training yourself to behave temporarily like an extrovert to “core personal projects” that we deem important and are passionate about. Under “free trait theory,” a person can temporarily act “out of character:” in this case, behaving like an extrovert whilst an introvert.

The key, of course, is remaining cognizant of mental bandwidth. Whereas extroverts recharge by being around people, being around people drains the mental energy of introverts. Therefore, it also makes sense to take plenty of breaks and get some quality alone time in order to recharge mental bandwidth, whether during the workday or in the privacy of home.

Overall, I strongly recommend that introverts and extroverts alike read Quiet! It is an excellent book to help introverts identify and leverage their strengths, and it is a great book for extroverts, particularly managers, to better understand the difficulties introverts face and help deconstruct the extrovert ideal.

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