Introverts and Extroverts

goldfish jumping out of the water    Think about your workplace for a minute. Or your non-profit, your church, your classroom. Think about the people who get noticed, rewarded, promoted. If the environment you’re thinking of is typical, you may perceive that it’s the extroverts — those with outgoing social skills and a work-the-room personality — who tend to be the ones to rise to the top and end up in positions of prominence and leadership. The quiet ones — those who analyze before they speak, who generally prefer small groups and one-on-one conversation to big crowds, who don’t put themselves forward — tend to be overlooked, their contributions often undervalued.

If that’s your perception, you’re not alone, and now there’s evidence to back up that notion that our American society favors the extrovert. I’m reading a really interesting book, and it has opened my eyes to a strong bias that I think exists in our culture — a bias in favor of extroverts over introverts. The book, published last year, is called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Quiet is extremely thorough and well-researched, and it gets pretty scholarly at times, so I won’t try to over-simplify the author’s concepts, but basically she says this: our Western culture idealizes the extroverted personality type over the introvert, and we often do so to our detriment.

Why is this apparent bias such a bad thing? Well, there are two problems with our infatuation with the extrovert. On one hand, in group discussions, extroverts often get their way by sheer force of personality, especially when they gain positions of power. Any of us who has worked for a strong-willed extroverted boss knows how hard it is to confront him or her when we disagree about the wisdom of a pet project or new plan. Extroverts may be persuasive, but that doesn’t make them right. A study of the Wall Street personalities who brought us the recent recession would almost certainly show that it was the extroverts, those bold, passionate, articulate risk-takers, who with overwhelming confidence strode out onto the thin ice and practically sank our economy.

The other downside of our love affair with extroverts is that introverts frequently have the best ideas. In Quiet, Susan Cain cites author Jim Collins’ research in the business classic Good to Great. Collins did not set out to write about leadership — all he was trying to do was to analyze why the eleven companies he chose to study had so dramatically out-performed their peers over a long period of time. But as Collins looked more deeply at these eleven firms he made a startling discovery: none was led by the stereotypically outgoing, high profile, “Top Dog” extroverted leader! Every single company had a leader who was described by employees with words like self-effacing, encouraging, thoughtful, introspective, and reflective. In other word, all eleven winning companies were led by apparent introverts.

There’s a lot more to absorb in this book, and much more to write about. (Besides, I haven’t finished it yet.) For now, if you’re an extrovert, learn to back off a bit and be careful not to use your passion and persuasiveness to mask your doubts! You may not be as sure of yourself and your ideas as you think you are. This is especially important if you’re in leadership, where you must learn to listen to other voices. And if you have introverts on your staff, go out of your way to seek out their wisdom and advice. Just because they aren’t the first ones to raise their hands and holler, “Pick me! Pick me!” doesn’t mean they don’t have outstanding insight.

Introverts, you may have to learn a few extrovert tricks and speak up with greater boldness. But above all have confidence and take heart: you are not alone. Just because you live in a world that won’t shut up doesn’t mean you can’t make yourself heard — you may simply need to find some creative ways to do it while remaining true to who you are.

“What’s the Point?”

uncle_sam_pointing_finger       You’re a Sales Manager leading a sales meeting. Suddenly you notice that glazed look gradually forming in the eyes of your team. The longer you talk, the more you realize that you’ve lost them — they’re not paying attention. What happened?

Or you’re a parent lecturing — um, I mean communicating with your kids. But soon they’ve stopped listening to you, and you notice their attention drifting. Where did you get off track — and how do you get back on?

Your team, your kids, your spouse, your clients, your donors — any time you’re trying to communicate and you notice that you’ve lost your audience, it may be that you’ve failed to answer the one question that is uppermost in their minds. It’s the one question you and I ask when we’re listening to our boss, or our spouse, or a salesperson, especially when they’re sort of, you know, going on and on. It’s a 3-word question that, if we stop and ask it, can really make our communication more direct and more effective.

The question: “What’s the point?”

Nationally known author, speaker and learning styles expert Cynthia Tobias ( says that “What’s the point?” is the single most important question a parent needs to ask when trying to motivate a strong-willed child. I would add that it’s also the best question a boss can ask when dealing with employees who seem reluctant to get with the program — maybe the employees are tired of the boss’s long-winded abstractions and really want him or her to cut to the chase! “Don’t give me chapter and verse…or the entire 50-page strategic plan,” they cry. “Just tell me what you want me to do. What’s the point?

If you’re in sales or in fundraising, my suggestion is that during your presentation you frequently remind your client or your donor what the point of your presentation is. Otherwise they may become fearful that you’re going to go on talking indefinitely! Or if you’re leading a team in something complicated, like a planning session, it’s your responsibility to remind them frequently what the point of the whole exercise really is. Otherwise, especially when tension and fatigue begin to rise, people grow frustrated. “For crying out loud, what is the point?” they’ll ask — a question you don’t want to hear!

So take it from someone who has done it wrong more times than I can remember. Before you open your mouth to communicate something important, stop and ask yourself, “What’s the point I’m trying to make here?” If you can state it succinctly, and if you can answer that question in the minds of your listeners, it will go a long way toward preventing that glazed-over look of indifference and detachment that no boss, or parent, or spouse, or sales rep or fundraiser likes to see! You can even play a little game with yourself: pretend the words “What’s the point?” are emblazoned across the foreheads of the people you’re talking to. Or if you’re really daring, hand them a three-by-five card bearing the words “What’s the point?” and give them permission to hold it up if you wander off topic.

After all, it’s all about clear, concise, effective communication. That’s the point!


A Fresh Pair of Eyes

Gene Wilder       Back when I was a sales manager for a major metropolitan radio station, a rookie salesperson asked me one day to come on a call with him. “I feel like this client is really close,” he said, “but I’m not sure what to do next.” Of course I said I would go.

A few days later we met with the prospective client. It was clear to me that my sales rep had done a good job — there had been several face to face meetings during which the client’s budget and goals had been clearly determined. The rep had prepared and presented a workable radio schedule. My sales rep and the client went over all this stuff while I sat there mostly listening and nodding a lot. All the pieces were in place. The presentation concluded with smiles and words of agreement.

Then…nothing. For an awkward minute no one spoke. And in a flash of managerial brilliance it struck me: the sales rep had done everything except to ask for the order! So I cleared my throat managerially and said to the client, “Um, well, Karen, it sounds like this plan will work well for you. Would you like to start next Monday?” She beamed (with relief, I suspect) and said, “Sure, that would be great!” Sale closed, contract signed. We all smiled and shook hands and left the office.

In the car on the way back to the radio station the account rep thanked me profusely and sang my praises. I was brilliant! I was insightful! But no, I thought to myself…all I really brought to the table was a fresh pair of eyes. I was able to see something that was painfully obvious where my sales rep could not. The sale was 100% ready to close — all that was needed was the slightest nudge. Someone had to do the obvious and ask for the order.

Thinking back on that episode causes me to wonder: are there relationships I’m managing now where I can’t see the obvious? Are there donors who haven’t given simply because I haven’t asked? Maybe I need a fresh pair of eyes to help me see how to move those relationships forward. I know there are people in my worklife who would do that for me, just as I would for them. And I suspect that in no time at all I could come up with a list of several “stalled” relationships where some new insight would be in order.

Perhaps it’s time for me to overcome my hesitation, swallow my pride, and let someone else help me see more clearly with a fresh pair of eyes.


Cognitive Dissonance

cognitive dissonance hat      I just made up a new answer for people who take me to task for my sometimes-inconsistent opinions: “I have a love/hate relationship with cognitive dissonance.”

Or as the saying goes, “Cognitive dissonance: you can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it.”

The notion of cognitive dissonance is a handy one, because it explains a lot. (It is also the only concept I recall from my Introduction to Psychology class all those years ago.) The phrase “cognitive dissonance” refers to the mental tension one experiences when one attempts to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s head simultaneously. And, let’s face it, in our society there are plenty of times when we cling tenaciously to convictions that clearly contradict each other. For example…

  • “It’s all in God’s hands” versus “It’s all up to me.”
  • “It’s important to be humble and self-effacing” versus “It’s important to assert oneself and to get ahead.”
  • “I long for the simpler life and will give up material success in order to achieve it” versus “I long for material success and will embrace busyness and complexity in order to achieve it.”
  • “I have 400 friends on Facebook” versus “I have no close relationships.”
  • “It’s good for my kids to relax and play” versus “It’s good for my kids to be involved in lots of extra-curricular activities.”
  • “I am not defined by what I do” versus “I’d be lost if I ever got laid off.”

Each one of us has our own cognitive dissonance list. Right now, for example, I’m in the middle of planning for an important fundraising event at work. As a person of faith I believe fully that God will move in the details to make the outcome exactly what it ought be. But as a relatively neurotic and overly self-reliant person I also believe fully that the success or failure of the event rests 100% on my shoulders and if I drop the ball the whole endeavor will collapse in a heap. No pressure, of course. In reality, both statements have elements of truth: I need to work hard, and I also need to pray hard. That second part is the part I too often overlook.

If you find yourself stressing out over some of these kinds of thoughts from time to time, it can be useful to stop and realize that cognitive dissonance is a very real psychological by-product of a very real internal conflict. Maybe the stress you’re experiencing stems from trying to balance two ideas in your mind that are in conflict with one another. You may not be able to resolve the conflict — that’s why it creates dissonance, after all — but at least understanding why the conflict exists might help you gain some clarity. News flash for each of us: we’re all more or less normal.

Or are we? “I’m normal” versus “I’m abnormal.” Hmmm…there’s a concept sure to create plenty of cognitive dissonance in the best of us!

Making Great Time — on the Wrong Road

wrong-way-red-sign     “Map? I don’t need no stinking map!”  Sound familiar? Or am I the only one?

I was driving to meet a client on the outskirts of a rural Seattle suburb. It was unfamiliar territory to me, but I had a pretty good sense of where I needed to go. So when I saw heavy traffic a quarter mile or so up ahead at the intersection where I was planning on turning left, I made a swift and perfectly (I thought) logical decision: I’ll turn left right here, a quarter mile before my intersection, and then I’ll make a right on the next available side street. It’s sure to connect with the road I need to be on.

This is where a map might have come in handy.

I didn’t do all that well in sophomore year geometry, but I do remember an interesting factoid about parallel lines: they never intersect…especially when they stop being parallel and gradually begin to diverge. Had I glanced at the map, I would have seen two important things. First, I would have noted with interest that the road I was on and the road I wanted did indeed run parallel for a mile or so before they began to separate imperceptibly but inexorably. Second, I would have perceived that, contrary to all the basic precepts of urban planning, there was no right-angle street connecting these two — at least, not in the state of Washington. Maybe had I driven to Idaho I could have found a road, but that seemed a tad extreme.

Nevertheless, in the confidence that can only come from fundamental ignorance of the facts, I pressed on. And on. And on. It was a sunny day and the scenery was lovely, but I was not, in fact, enjoying the drive — I was getting later and later for my appointment, and more and more frustrated at the growing awareness of the fatal flaw in my plan. I was making great time, but I was on the wrong road.

When that happens, we have two choices: change course now or change course later. I chose to keep driving for maybe 20 minutes before I realized the obvious, even though I suspected the truth about two minutes after I made that fateful, premature left turn. I finally did turn back, re-tracing my steps, and sheepishly arrived 40 minutes late for my appointment. And I learned a couple of things:

  • Get good advice. I could have asked the client for specific directions, or (gasp) stopped to ask someone else if I was on the right road, but in my ego-driven state I refused to do so.
  • Use all available resources. Common sense may be sensible, but it’s not always common! I could have used a map (or, today, MapQuest) but again I thought I had the route all figured out. The fact that my route was wrong made little difference, until it was too late.
  • Make corrections early. Enough said about this one. I needed to slay my ego and change course MUCH sooner than I eventually did.

Are you making good time? Super! But are you on the wrong road? Maybe it’s time for a thorough reevaluation…before you end up clear over in Idaho! If you need to turn around — and we all need to turn around from time to time — sooner is always better than later.