Have You Been Trained to Seek Out Extroverts?

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is Cain’s most recent book (Crown, 2012). In it, she describes the rise of extroverts, in what she calls “the culture of personality.” She refers to earlier examples, like Dale Carnegie, but her most compelling example is the Harvard Business School (HBS), where, she reports, a student told her, “This school is predicated on extroversion. Your grades and social status depend on it. It’s just the norm here.”

As a result, Cain writes, “The essence of the HBS education is that leaders have to act confidently and make decisions in the face of incomplete information.” However, in group exercises that depend on consensus, the loudest voices often prevail when the quieter ones are better informed or have better ideas. And that’s the thesis of Cain’s entire book—that teams, and businesses, dominated by the actions and opinions of extroverts are often less innovative and successful than those that seek the input of introverts.

She writes movingly about Steve Wozniak, an electronic genius who pioneered word processors and computers for Hewlett-Packard, beginning in the mid-1970s. Wozniak says in his autobiography, “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads.” Many if not most introverts prefer to work by themselves and have their best ideas when they’re allowed to do so.

If we understood the importance of this, Cain says, “We’d want to teach our kids to work independently. We’d want to give employees plenty of privacy and autonomy. Yet increasingly we do just the opposite.” We’ve become convinced of the value of what Cain calls the “New Groupthink” to solve problems and spawn new ideas. Many workers spend huge amounts of their time on teams, and they have less and less privacy in increasingly smaller personal workspaces.

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Let’s look at brainstorming. Cain admits that generating ideas as part of a team, often called “brainstorming,” is a corporate process that’s still very popular. But research shows that, by and large, it doesn’t work as well as other methods. Psychologist Anders Ericsson has experimented with what he calls Deliberate Practice, which is best conducted alone.

His experiments showed that individuals who practiced their craft by themselves far excelled over those who practiced in groups. The reason is that, as Ericsson explains, when you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach and strive to continually upgrade your performance.

By the same token, group brainstorming is less effective than many leaders believe. The earliest research to show this goes back to 1963(!), when psychologist Marvin Donnette found that people got more and better ideas by themselves than in groups as small as four.

Researchers usually suggest three reasons for this:

  1. Any group is likely to contain “social loafers”—people who sit back and let others do the work;
  2. Only one person can speak at a time, forcing others to sit and listen passively, which is called “production blocking”; and
  3. Some group members fear looking stupid in front of their peers, which is called “evaluation apprehension” and holds back some potential contributors.

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In tomorrow’s Advisor, we’ll look at introverts and leadership—plus examine a great online training tool for employee leadership.