As a society, we often split ourselves into identifiable groups, reflective of aspects of ourselves, to help represent and understand our place in the world. One of these groupings is introverts vs extroverts. Generally, introverts are considered shy, restrained, quiet, and introspective, while extroverts are generally considered outgoing, social, friendly, and congenial. In Susan Cain’s TED Talk, The Power of Introverts, she discusses her experiences in the world as an introvert, breaks down the biases against introverts, and outlines solutions to create more inclusive spaces for introverts.
Susan explains that introversion isn’t simply shyness – shyness is linked to fear of judgment, while introversion has more to do with how we respond to stimulation. In order to maximize our personal talents, we must understand what type of stimulation we best react to. Introverts feel most capable, comfortable, and alive when we’re in quieter, more muted environments. Extroverts, on the other hand, respond well to stimulation.
For each of us to maximize our capabilities and performance, it’s vital that we’re in the “zone of stimulation” suitable for us. Further, introversion and extroversion is a spectrum, with many points in the middle. Note that someone right in the middle of the spectrum is known as an ambivert. It’s up to each of us to decipher where we fall on the spectrum, to help us understand what type of environments we thrive in.
Now that we’ve broken down introversion, extroversion, and everything in between, Susan discusses the social biases that favor extroverts. Leadership is a good example: introverts are often passed over for leadership roles because extroversion and confidence are popularly understood to be defining features of a good leader. However, some of the world’s most successful leaders like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg identify as introverts.
Where does this bias come from? Over the last hundred years, in Western societies, and particularly the United States, we’ve favored the “man of action” over the “man of contemplation”. This bias became more embedded when the US entered the twentieth century, as we hit the cult of personality. As big business and the world of industrialization overtook the country, magnetism and charisma seemed vital for successful leadership. We’re still largely living with this bias in the twenty-first century. Even as the workplace diversifies, the traits of extroverts are often used to describe ideal workplace leaders.
So what can we do to change how we think about the qualities necessary for leadership in the workplace? Susan explains that we need a better balance. Creativity has become a vital component in leadership and workplace success, and creative people aren’t always the most outgoing individuals in the room.
Lots of introverts are creative, largely because “solitude is a crucial ingredient to creativity”.
For some people, solitude is their bread and butter – that’s where they feel most creative and productive. In order to recognize and promote introverts, Susan offers a solution: encourage individuals to go off by themselves, generate their own ideas, and then come together as a team and talk about their ideas in a well-managed environment. This would enable individuals who operate and think more creatively on their own, and those who’re more productive working in groups, to both succeed.