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Gregariousness is Optional

excited business colleagues      Ah, those overly gregarious co-workers. You’re surrounded by them. Gregarious people are the ones who are highly sociable, highly outgoing, always seeking the company of others. Gregarious people, in other words, are the classic extroverts. And if you’re the classic introvert, your gregarious colleagues probably drive you nuts sometimes. Do they always have to be so — emotional? So up? Laughing so loud and so long? High-fiving each other incessantly? Don’t they ever calm down??!

Well…probably not. And I suspect there are times when that fills your introverted heart with a mixture of irritation and maybe just a bit of envy. Sometimes I’ll bet you’d like to cut loose a bit — or at least cut a little looser. But if that’s not your nature, the subtle pressure you might feel from the extroverts around you can be a bit daunting. So here’s some great news from an excellent book I’ve quoted from before, called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. She makes this profound statement: “Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.”

As we’ve pointed out before, our culture tends to idolize the extroverts. We somehow tend to equate being an extrovert with being strong, being a leader, being assertive and taking charge. But experience shows us that is assuredly not always the case! Some extroverts talk a good game but fail to demonstrate substance to match their style. And many introverts outshine their extroverted colleagues and become outstanding leaders in businesses and organizations large and small.

Sadly, in our overly-hyped, extroverted world, gregariousness doesn’t feel optional! While being the out-going one gets you noticed, all too often the introverts feel out-shouted as the clamoring extroverts vie for attention. That’s why I think Susan Cain’s statement is so profound. After she says that “Love is essential; gregariousness is optional,” she goes on to add this suggestion for introverts:

The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers — of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity — to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems, make art, think deeply…Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.

Where do you shine best — in the glare of the Broadway spotlight, or in the soft glow of the lamplit desk? Each has its place. Each is of equal value.

This notion is even Biblical, by the way. There’s a New Testament verse in Peter’s first epistle that challenges the faithful to use the particular gifts God has given each one of us. In the New Living Translation, this passage says, “Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies.” Do you see the difference? That passage means that it doesn’t matter whether your God-given gift is public or private, out in the spotlight or behind the scenes — both are equally valuable and both are essential.

So, let the gregarious folks out there high five all they want to! Meanwhile you introverts can stop being intimidated. Just remember, “Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.”

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Posted by on July 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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“The New Groupthink”

Brainstorm    Do your brainstorming groups look like this? Neither do the ones I’ve been in. My memory of brainstorming sessions usually involves several loud colleagues arguing (I was usually one of them) with several quieter colleagues sitting there looking anxious and disengaged. Years later, after having spent countless hours in the sort of “No Bad Ideas” brainstorming sessions we’re all familiar with, I’m becoming convinced they can be severely counter-productive, an exercise in group frustration where the ideas that tend to surface aren’t the best ideas at all.

This is the third post where I’ve quoted from the book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s in these pages where I ran across the phrase “the New Groupthink,” and the idea immediately brought to mind images of those brainstorming sessions where the loudest and most eager team members — the Extroverts — always seemed to dominate. Their ideas were the ones that ended up on the gigantic flip chart sheets stuck here and there around the room — and since they always seemed to be the one chosen to summarize the team’s ideas, their ideas tended to get the most attention and affirmation. Meanwhile the Introverts in the group were sitting quietly on the fringes keeping their often-excellent ideas to themselves, reluctant to compete in the jostle of words and emotions.

I think the phrase “the New Groupthink” describes a kind of false consensus based on what all the Extroverts think would work. Sound familiar? But there’s a better way. Listen to how Susan Cain describes it: Remember the dangers of the New Groupthink. If it’s creativity you’re after, ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas. If you want the wisdom of the crowd, gather it electronically or in writing, and make sure people can’t see each other’s ideas until everyone’s had a chance to contribute.  Wow — sounds to me like the exact opposite of typical brainstorming!

She goes on to explain why, if you want the best ideas to surface, this radically different approach is so important. Group dynamics contain unavoidable impediments to creative thinking, she writes. Don’t mistake assertiveness and eloquence for good ideas. Those words convict me. In the past I used to be the one who thought he had the best ideas, and because I loved to hear myself pontificate I would usually be the assertive one in the brainstorming group, proclaiming my ideas with volume to match my level of conviction. How much did I contribute to “Groupthink” by unknowingly stifling the ideas of my quieter colleagues? I suspect I did it a lot. Age does sometimes bring wisdom, or at least a bit of self-assessment, and I hope I’ve learned my lesson. Now I try to listen more than I used to, and it’s amazing the things I learn.

What about you? If you’re the leader of the group, maybe you need to try some of the approaches Susan Cain outlines above and seek the contribution of your team in a more private way. If you’re the Extrovert on the team and the boss convenes a brainstorming session, make sure you quiet your impulse to dominate and seek out those in your group who may be hesitant to contribute. And if you’re the Introvert with the Best Idea Ever, speak up. Borrow a whistle or an air horn, if you have to, just to get everyone’s attention! Then someday when your idea has saved the company billions, you’ll be able to smile quietly and say, “See? We quiet ones do have great ideas!”

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Connecting the Dots?

Dots      Last time we talked about the topic of Introverts and Extroverts. It’s really fascinating how much our society is wired to appreciate Extroverts and make Introverts feel out of place! Here’s one recent example…

I was at a day-long business conference last week in a room with about 200 strangers. There on our plastic-enshrouded name tags alongside our names (First Name BIG FONT, last name smaller font) and company/organization was a colored dot. Oh-oh, I thought — this has all the earmarks of an ice-breaker.

Sure enough, at the first break, the cheerful lady at the mic announced that during the break we were to find someone else with a dot the same color as ours and converse. Strike up a conversation. Get to know each other. I presume we weren’t supposed to get too deeply into the weeds of intimacy since we only had 15 minutes (“Five minute countdown, everybody — five minutes!”) This was a longish break so we were supposed to connect more than one dot, as it were, although I think I cheated and talked to the same guy for maybe 20 minutes before I headed to the restroom.

I don’t really mind this stuff, actually, being more or less an Ambivert — with elements of both Intro and Extro woven into my personality. I can do fairly well chatting with strangers. (I do confess to an impatience with rules, though, which explains more than anything else my cheating on the colored-dot protocol.) But when I mentioned this episode to my delightful, sociable, introverted daughter, her immediate response was, “I hate ice-breakers!” And I had to wonder, how many of the people in the room wearing colored dots on their nametags felt exactly the same way? Was this exercise really designed by Extroverts, for Extroverts, leaving a significant number of Introvert attendees feeling awkward and out of place? Did it really break any ice?

The wonderful book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking delves into this fascinating topic in detail, and I highly recommend the book. One thing she said toward the end really struck me. “If you’re a manager,” she wrote, “remember that one third to one half of your workforce is probably introverted, whether they appear that way or not.” Boss, you had better stop and consider that reality, especially if you’re an Extrovert yourself! How much of your workplace, from the placement of desks to the assignment of accounts, is designed to appeal to (and maximize the performance of) Extroverts — to the possible detriment of many gifted Introvert members of your team? Have you made provision for these quieter, more reflective types to make a full contribution to your organization’s success?

More about this later. For now, if you go to a trade show or seminar and your name tag bears a colored dot, take my advice and plan your strategy ahead of time. Find a pleasant person with the same color dot as you, grab some coffee and locate a comfortable corner to chat. You even have my permission to talk with a dot of a different color! Oh, and one more thing — they called this particular ice-breaker “Speed Dotting.” I am not making this up.

 

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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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.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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