Susan Cain

Susan Cain: Harnessing the strengths of introverts

At nine years old, Susan Cain left for her first summer camp toting a suitcase full of books for what she envisioned would be eight weeks spent reading with her friends.

She was wrong.

Upon arrival, she and her campmates were tasked with memorizing a rambunctious cheer–which they would be performing all summer–and Cain quickly realized that the quiet scholarly family she was raised in was not the same as the world outside.

Cain, the author of the New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, relayed this story to a room full of Nordic Business Forum 2018 attendees. Behind her, a screen posed these questions: “Is the ideal leader bold, alpha & gregarious? The ideal thinker?”

“I believe we have got a deep, global cultural bias that would tell us that the answer to these questions is yes,” Cain told the audience. “And I believe that’s not right.”

An introvert in an extrovert-friendly world

For years after her summer camp experience, and well into her adulthood, Cain molded herself into the extroverted person that the corporate world rewards. Eventually, she became a Wall Street lawyer, partly because she was used to “always trying to be a kind of more alpha version of myself than was actually authentic to me.”

After nearly 10 years on Wall Street, Cain came to realize that her habit of conforming to expectations of extroversion was a “big mistake.” Since then, she’s led the charge to embrace the introverts of the workplace as they are and see their supposed “weaknesses” as strengths.

In 2012, her book Quiet was published, and in 2015, she founded the mission-based organization Quiet Revolution, which has initiatives in the area of parenting and education, lifestyle, and the workplace. In 2016, she published Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts. The book focuses on children and teenagers and appeals to their parents and educators as well. It also became a New York Times bestseller.

Introvert, extrovert, or ambivert?

Picture yourself at a party, surrounded by people whose company you truly enjoy. Two hours into it, how are you feeling? According to Cain, if you’re pumped up, as though your internal battery has been charging, you might be an extrovert. If you’re feeling drained, as though your internal battery is on its last dregs, you might be an introvert. If neither describes you, you might fall somewhere in the middle as an ambivert.

“This idea of the internal battery is incredibly useful when you’re thinking about your colleagues and your management and so on,” Cain continued. “But I want you to understand that it’s just a metaphor for what is actually happening inside our nervous systems because the fact is that introverts and extroverts are wired up differently.”

Introverts’ nervous systems react more to stimulation, meaning introverted people create best when fewer inputs are coming at them. Extroverts, on the other hand, have nervous systems that react less to stimulation, so too much quiet can make them feel bored and sluggish.

A famous experiment by psychologist Russell Geen had introverts and extroverts solve math problems with varying levels of background noise. He found that introverts performed better with softer background noise, but extroverts did better with louder background noise. You can see the implications this has for the office, right?

According to Cain: “There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all workplace.”

Find the introvert-extrovert dream team 

Cain is quick to point out that there’s no best type; an introvert is not better than an extrovert or vice versa. ”People have actually looked at this,” she explained. “There’s no intelligence difference between introverts and extroverts as a group.” They just have different ways of doing their best work.

In fact, a closer look at some of the leading examples of company founding teams reveals an introvert-extrovert partnership that strikes the perfect balance.

For example, at Apple, Steve Jobs had the more public-facing role, but it was Steve Wozniak who actually built the first Apple computer, Cain noted.

On being original in a world Influenced by group opinion

To find a truly original idea, Cain said, you have to step away from the crowd. She pointed to a statistic out of the Kellogg School that found that, in your typical meeting, three people are doing 70% of the talking.

On top of that, humans are naturally swayed by the opinion of the group. Here, Cain played a video from a study that put an unwitting participant in a room filled with actors who would intentionally guess the wrong answer to a visual perception test. Eventually, the participant gave in and began to agree with the (clearly incorrect) group surrounding him.

Tips on helping introverts in the workplace 

So how can introverts shine in a world that rewards gregariousness and dominance?

Cain offered two tips for introverts, and two for extroverts:

  1.  Introverts, speak up early. Think ahead of time of what you want to say
    or what question you want to ask. Ideas spoken early tend to become the
    focal point of the meeting, and on an emotional level, people focus on the
    ones who have spoken up first.
  2.  Introverts, don’t curb your enthusiasm. ”It doesn’t matter how enthusiastic
    you might be feeling inside,” Cain said. “You are probably not
    expressing your enthusiasm as fully as you feel it.” This can lead to your
    peers misreading your expressions or tone of voice. Cain said she’s heard
    from many people who say their boss doesn’t seem to care, but when you
    speak to the introverted boss, you find that they’re filled with pride and
    they just show it in a quiet way.
  3. Extroverts, you can curb your enthusiasm a little. Cain gave the
    example of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg—”who’s a very, very strong
    extrovert”—hiring a coach to help her to speak less at meetings. “She
    genuinely wanted to hear what other people had to say,” Cain said. “And
    it wasn’t coming forward. So we make these minor adjustments; they can
    have an enormous impact.”
  4. Extroverts, engage introverts on your team in a one-on-one fashion
    and give them advance notice. Introverts will want to process things
    beforehand and are more likely to open up in a one-on-one rather than in
    front of a large group.

Going forward: fostering a workplace that empowers introverts to succeed too

  1. Be mindful of getting into and out of your comfort zones. Extroverts
    need to be able to socialize. Introverts need to figure out the one or two
    important things to them and the changes they need to make in order
    for those things to happen. For example, Cain herself used to fear public
    speaking, but she found the skill necessary for her work. So she slowly
    exposed herself to the fear, including taking a seminar for people with
    public speaking anxiety.
  2. Groom an unlikely leader. Maybe there’s someone on your team who
    is brilliant but quiet and keeps to themselves. Why not appoint them to
    a leadership position? “There’s so much research on this,” explained
    Cain, “that introverts tend to get passed over for leadership positions on
    the one hand. On the other hand, once they actually do make it to those
    positions, they deliver a really great performance.”
  3. Find introvert role models for introverts on your team. “Find your role
    model,” Cain urged. “And even more than that, encourage the people who
    you care about, who you’re mentoring, to find theirs.”

What’s in your suitcase?

Not much has changed since her summer camp days, as Cain still carries a suitcase full of books when she travels. To end her talk, she asked the audience to think about what’s in their own suitcase, metaphorically and literally.

Addressing the introverts in the room, Cain said, “It’s probably more natural for you to keep those items in your suitcase and to guard them carefully, and that’s fine too. And I only want to say to you that every so often you should, please, take those things out of your suitcase and share them with the people around you because the world needs you, and it needs the things you carry.”

About Nordic Business Forum 2018

Nordic Business Forum 2018 was held on 26-27 September in Helsinki, Finland, gathering together 7,500 CEOs, top executives, and entrepreneurs from over 40 countries.

Download the full Executive Summary and read what the speakers said on stage at Nordic Business Forum 2018.



More articles to read

James Hewitt

James Hewitt: The key to sustainable high performance

Gary Hamel

Gary Hamel: Agility is the essence of survival