This book was brought to my attention by my friend Willem Top who recently acquired a couple of books on the subject of introversion and extroversion and started to discuss the subject with me. I came across this one from Willem's list on my way to Copenhagen (at which point I'd like to praise the quality of the bookstores on Gardermoen, compared to the meager selection if bestsellers and nothing else that is found at Copenhagen Airport, Kastrup - the book assortment there stands in no proportion to the otherwise fine shopping facilities on that airport) and having run out of other reading material on the plane I immediately continued with “Quiet”.
The book deals with introversion seen from the cultural point of view and the dichotomy between the ‘man of action’ and the ‘man of contemplation’. Modern Western society has come to have a strong preference for the former, extrovert type, especially at work, social life and (because of these) schools. The book tries to explore how we could improve the world if there was a greater balance between the two main types of personality: introversion of extroversion.
Introduction, introversion, extroversion
The book consists of four parts, not including the brief Introduction that lays out the theme, starting with the Rosa Parks case. Through her quiet resistance Rosa sparked a powerful movement and dramatic change in the USA. Quite interesting, by the way, that there is some overlap in examples and cases to other books I recently read, like Duhigg’s book on Habits (both the Rosa Parks case and Saddleback church were used there, yet with a different focus and emphasis) while Mlodinov’s book on unconscious thinking has parallels to the parts about the functioning of the brain.
The first part of the book discusses The Extrovert Ideal. Chapter 1 explores how and why extroversion came to become the new cultural ideal. As Cain says in the introduction: “Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform”, for example because talkative people “are rated smarter, better looking, more interesting and more desirable as friends”.
Cain chooses the early 20th Century as the starting point with Dale Carnegie and his self-help program (his book is still a continuous airport bestseller), the influence of advertisements and Adler’s inferiority complex. But things can be traced further back, to the ancient Greeks or Romans.
Things become more substantial in Chapter 2 where the author explores The Myth of Charismatic Leadership through four major cases, the self-help seminars of Tony Robbins, Harvard Business School (HBS), Rosa Park and Saddleback church. With regard to the self-help business Cain comments that “nowadays we tend to think that becoming more extroverted not only makes us more successful, but also better people”.
HBS obviously has a major influence on what type of leaders we get. Their essence is that leaders have to act confidently and make decisions in the face of incomplete information. The CEO may not know the best way, but has to act as if he is entirely certain nevertheless to avoid that morale suffers and investors stay away. There is, however, a good amount of evidence that faking certainty and confidence not necessarily lead to better results. If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good and bad ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always get things their way. It doesn’t mean that they got it the right way, after all. There is a serious problem that people mix up good presentation skills and true leadership ability. There is often too much focus on presentation and too little on substance and critical thinking.
Studies have actually shown that many effective CEOs in fact are introverts. Many exceptional leaders are not known for their charisma, but for their humility coupled to intense professional will. As Jim Collins said: “We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos, but the institutions they run”.
Adam Grant found out that studies on leadership often are based on people’s perceptions (cultural bias) of who made a good leader, rather than looking at actual results. He also found out that existing research did not differentiate among the various kinds of situations a leader might face. Grant’s research shows that extroverted leaders are best suited to enhance performance in situations with passive employees, but proactive employees will thrive with introverted leaders who listen to their ideas and suggestions and don’t feel the need to put their own stamp on the solution. (This reminds me of what Mathieu Weggeman writes in his fantastic book “Leidinggeven Aan Professionals? Niet Doen!” about pushing someone who is moving forward in the back with the aim to direct him and make him go faster. The common result will be that the person in question will struggle and resist, rather than go faster). Companies and educational institutions like HBS should therefore understand that it’s important to groom both talkers and listeners.
By the way, speaking from my own experience I can confirm Grant’s findings. And there are exceptions: for a while I had an exceptionally extrovert leader who understood the art to listen to his introvert employees and knew how to use them in the best way to combine his boundless energy and presentation with contents and substance. So it’s possible to combine these two ‘opposites’.
The third chapter is about creativity. The most striking message here is that contrary to popular beliefs and perception, traditional brainstorming does not lead to better results. Many creative people are introvert. Especially introverts prefer to work independently and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation. Yet, what Cain baptizes ‘The New Groupthink’ has become the new norm and it elevates teamwork above all else - not only in generating ideas, but especially in schools and work situations.
What teamwork neglects is one central element that is very important for becoming an expert, namely ‘serious study alone’ or ‘deliberate practice’, best done in the right working conditions which often are not provided because of open office spaces and the like. Excessive stimulation seems to impede learning and the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity. And also performance decreases when group size increases! People, however, feel that brainstorming works because they feel attached and involved (and don’t have the chance to compare it to the results of individual idea gathering anyway).
It’s a commonly seen fallacy that that the success of collaborative projects like Linux or Wikipedia is transferred to real life, while these projects in fact are the result of people working on them together in a virtual space - so effectively alone. Context matters. Interestingly, studies show that online brainstorming, when properly managed, improves results. Bigger groups even lead to better results.
The main problems for ordinary brainstorming are social loafing (some keep to the back and let others do the work), production blocking (only one person at a time, while other members have to wait for their turn) and most importantly evaluation apprehension (the fear of looking foolishly in front of other people - a deep rooted force that is very, very hard to do something about) and more or less coupled to that a natural drive for conformity.
Cain doesn’t argue for a turn to solitary processes online - face-to-face interactions create trust in ways that interactions in virtual settings just can’t and a web of social interactions give benefits that a hermit’s life cannot. A way forward according to her is to refine the way we collaborate face-to-face, for example by actively seeking out symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships (like the one about my former manager mentioned above) in which leadership and other tasks are divided according to people’s natural strengths and temperaments. The most effective teams have a healthy mix. We also need to create settings in which people are free to circulate in a variety of interactions, or to withdraw in private workspaces if they need to.
The second part (partly looking into the biology of intro/extroversion) comprises of four chapters of which I found the first three of somewhat lesser interest/relevance to me. Chapter 4 starts with the nature/nurture question, explored through the subject of reactivity and how much this can be predictive for your personality. Unsurprisingly, who you are and how you behave is shaped through a multitude of factors, but reactivity is one of them.
Chapter 5 looks into the role of free will and how we can shape and stretch personality, because we can. Up to a point. Bottom line is that one should find out the level of stimulation that is ‘just right’: not too much and not too little. Finding your ‘sweet spot’ may vary from situation to situation and day to day. The subtitle also promises to say something to say something about the secret of public speaking for introverts, but don’t expect too much from that.
The next chapter takes on sensitivity and coolness. Cool is not always cool, so to say, and again, there needs to be a balance between personality type and the right personality type at the right place.
Chapter seven is where things are getting more interesting again (as far as I’m concerned with my safety oriented point of view). There is a discussion about 'reward sensitivity' (related to a.o. the financial crisis) which of course relative to risk taking behaviour. Unsurprisingly extroverts doers are more predisposed to the reward oriented end of the spectrum while introverts thinkers tend to be more cautious, but of course every person has their own mixture of attack or avoidance which may very well depend on the situation at hand. Biologically there is a connection to rushes of dopamine and positive emotions. Sometimes a positive buzz can lead to overconfidence and prevent us from paying attention to warning signals. Again the author argues for a balance between action and reflection.
Interestingly there is a third state called ‘flow’ that appears to be independent of reward but where an activity is performed for its own sake and basically the activity is the reward in itself (e.g. doing an interesting research project, playing music, reading a book).
The third part of the book is short and consists of just one chapter that discusses different cultures and how they view the "extrovert ideal" of the Western (notably American) world, especially seen from an Asian point of view. Most interesting here I found the examples that illustrate how things said or done with the best intentions can be totally misunderstood by people coming from another culture (somewhat predating further discussion of the communication gap of Chapter 10).
The fourth and final part of the book contains three chapters mainly dealing with everyday life and how to cope with your personality in various situations that you might find challenging or actually struggle with (mind you, not on a self-help book level!).
Chapter 9 takes up the question how and if we can behave differently in different situations. Are we rather situational introverts and extroverts and in how far can we manage this? Much of the chapter draws on the work of Professor Brian Little and his ‘Free Trait Theory’. This theory basically says that we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits, but we can and do act out of character in the core of core personal projects. Little himself is used as the main example to illustrate the matter in this chapter, but I could easily relate to it myself, often preferring to stay home with a book and good music but getting an enormous ‘buzz’ from having the chance to speaking in public about a subject that I burn for.
As almost everything, the Free Trait strategy should be used wisely. Overdo it and it may be harmful, leading to stress, burn out or even physical problems. Little advises a ‘Free Trait Agreement’ that allows acting out of character if necessary and at the same time gives opportunity to withdraw in restorative zones to ‘recharge’ (his own examples of hiding in the bathroom are actually quite funny).
The tenth chapter deals with the communication gap between introverts and extroverts (on an individual level this time) and how to bridge it. It’s not only what we say and how we act, but also how our words and behaviour may be perceived. Introverts and extroverts have different ways of expressing themselves and also different ways of understanding. It may sound like an awful cliché, but putting oneself in the other’s shoes helps a lot.
The final chapter deals with children and providing them with the right environment to flourish. As mentioned several times previously in the book, schools and universities (and companies) often have a one-size-fits-all approach that favours extroverts and neglects the value that introverts can bring. This can even lead to harmful excesses if introversion is seen as an illness and they are forced into a mould that doesn’t fit them at all. Providing an environment that fits more than one type of personality is to everyone’s benefit in the long run.
There is some outrageous extroverted praise on the sticker that's on my copy (“...the most important book published for a decade”) which is neither true nor in line with the book's message. Even worse is probably the boisterous claim ("The book that started a quiet revolution") on the back, especially given the fact that the book clearly explains strengths and weaknesses of both introverts and extroverts. The message is that we must stop overvaluing extroverts and loose the quiet thoughtful voice on the way.
One may ask what this book has to do with safety and what are lessons to be learned for HSE professionals here? Quite a few I think. There is the understanding how people think, behave and act/react. Safety is very much about the right people in the right place, for example like how introvert leaders are better suited for proactive employees and that doers and thinkers together are likely to be more successful than either of them on their own (doers impulsively heading into all kind of disasters while thinkers may fail to act when necessary).
For society in general we should heed the advice about a better balance, especially not pressing children in an extrovert straightjacket. And neither should we do with employees, by the way.
One thing that I like about the book is that Cain has a nuanced view of the matter and (in contrary to many others) strongly favours one side. Granted, sometimes she argues from the introvert ‘underdog’ point of view, but as said she discusses both pros and cons of both introversion and extroversion and concludes over and over again that we need a balance of both. The traits should be complementary, not opposites. So there isn’t a black and white picture of a world split up in two kinds of people. She also acknowledges that there is a middle thing (ambivert - although it isn’t discussed at length in the book) and that the introvert and extrovert traits interact with other personality traits, creating wildly different kinds of people. Given the right context and environment out personality traits can flourish and bring out the best: “introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well”.
One thought that stuck with me while reading the book are the parallels between introversion and extroversion and the Rhineland (Rijnlandse) and Anglo/American way of managing businesses. Introversion better fits to the former style that favours craftsmanship, quality, professionalism and the creation of ‘beautiful things’, while extroversion better fits the short term objectives-oriented, MBA-driven style of the latter. Something to reflect over and possibly get back to at a later point in time.
I’ve read the Penguin pocket version (ISBN 978-0-141-02919-1)
For a quick preview, check out Susan Cain's 2012 TED Talk.