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.