Canadian Consulting Engineer

Quiet Please!

May 1, 2012
By By Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng.

If you are reading this in an office cubicle while struggling to concentrate against the phone conversation next door; if the very thought of walking into a crowded room makes you cringe; if you think that some of your teammates or your bosses...

If you are reading this in an office cubicle while struggling to concentrate against the phone conversation next door; if the very thought of walking into a crowded room makes you cringe; if you think that some of your teammates or your bosses talk too much, and listen or think too little; if you think that the constant demand of social interaction is stifling your creative impulses – try Susan Cain’s Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Crown Publishing, 2012).

Cain makes a powerful plea for the value of quiet, and she challenges some of the prevailing North American cultural norms that favour extroverts over introverts; talk and social interaction over introspection and thoughtfulness.

This bias towards extroversion has implications not only for engineers, innovators, creative thinkers, but also for the rest of the one third to half of the population who need some quiet to function well.

Using research from studies, historical examples and individual stories, she questions the way our culture values talk and group social behaviour. These extrovert characteristics decide many of the choices we currently make: the people we follow, the workplaces we design, the skills we teach the young and what we expect from the mature. Some currently held truths get critical scrutiny: what makes a good leader, the value of teams, collaboration.

Cain has produced a thoroughly researched work which looks at the origins and the consequences of the rise of the extrovert and argues for more respect for the introvert and a better balance between the two.

That talk and social interaction are now prized above quiet and thoughtfulness is hardly a question for anyone in the modern school or workplace. But in case there is any doubt, Cain traces the roots of the current cultural value of extroversion from the “culture of character” – the kind of person you were in earlier agricultural times, to the “culture of personality” – who you are perceived to be in the new industrial times. The new economy needed “a new kind of man – a salesman, a social operator.” In the early 1900s, Ford, Sears Roebuck, Woolworth, J.C. Penny and the like were the new economy and they needed salesmen to sell Model T’s and a host of other products. This new man needed to talk convincingly, socialize easily, operate. Dale Carnegie was one of the early operators.

The extrovert characteristics required for this job have infiltrated the rest of society, including schools where more emphasis is placed on talking and group work, and where there is less space for individual practice like trying to solve a math problem by yourself.

The parents of quiet children worry, and well they might. One of Cain’s striking examples is the experience of a student at the Harvard Business School, where “If a student talks often and forcefully, then he’s a player; if he doesn’t, he’s on the margins” – apparently even if the student only half believes what he is saying. This is also a place where “socializing .. is an extreme sport.” Harvard Business School prides itself on producing leaders. Here as elsewhere in the culture, verbalization and presentation are prized and rewarded. Cain quotes one of the graduates of this educational philosophy, a manager at GE: “… you can’t sit down in someone’s office and tell them what you think. You have to make a presentation, with pros and cons and a ‘takeaway box.’’’

Do extroverts make better leaders? Sometimes, and sometimes introverts make better leaders. Cain acknowledges the inviting energy of extroverts but she goes on to look at studies of the leadership styles of acknowledged leaders who are or were introverts – Charles Schwab, Bill Gates, to name two among many. Studies show that introverted leaders tend to lead differently. They are more inclined to listen, to take up suggestions and are more likely to be described as quiet, unassuming. Quoting management “guru” Peter Drucker who has studied effective leaders: “some locked themselves into their offices and others were ultra-gregarious.”

Cain also takes aim at a number of other perceived truths which grow out of the extrovert bias: the value of teamwork and collaboration, the open plan office — even brainstorming. She aims not so much at the concepts themselves but their current application. Even the apparent success of Internet collaboration on sites like Wikipedia are not taken at face value.

Take the provocatively titled chapter: “When Collaboration Kills Creativity – The Rise of the New Groupthink and the Power of Working Alone.” Anyone who has worked in enough teams knows that some of them are good, and others so-so, and still others positively counterproductive. Cain delves into psychological studies that examine why teams can fail, why individuals go along with opinions of the more vocal, why even brainstorming with its attempt at eliciting ideas in a non-judgemental way can produce poorer rather than better results. These practices are promoted as an ideal despite clear evidence that at times they can maim, if not kill, projects and ideas and can cause plenty of ill-feeling. The open plan office, the physical expression of the social interaction ideal where some 70% of America’s employees are said to work with the aim of promoting teamwork and collaboration, can just as easily promote irritation and poor concentration due to interruptions – not increased productivity.

The appeal for some quiet, for introspection, for some space to work alone is perhaps most compelling in the realm of creativity, where engineers, innovators and artists often spend their days. Here the chatter and interaction of the social scene can seriously interfere with the ability to synthesize ideas, to dream up new ones, to think. As science journalist, Winifred Gallagher says, “Neither E=mc2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.”

So what kind of animal does it take? Here Cain has some heavyweights in her corner. She quotes a few giants of creative thinking to make the case for some space for individual solitary thought, deliberate practice, patience and persistence. In his memoir, Apple’s Steve Wozniak says, “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me – they’re shy and they live in their heads.” Not the words of a social operator. Einstein said, “I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork.” Newton, reputed to be a great introvert, was presumably sitting under the tree alone when the apple of legend landed on him to suggest the force of gravity. Inventors like Edison who spent countless hours in the laboratory, alone, perfecting the light bulb; artists like Michelangelo, who spent those hours dangling under the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, know the value of individual work and persistence. Even a teenager trying over and over to throw the basketball through the hoop knows the value of individual effort and persistence.

But quiet and thoughtful does not mean silent and speechless. Cain points to introverts who are excellent performers as presenters and teachers in contexts where they can prepare and deliver. She is not arguing for the opposite bias in favour of introverts, just for some space for quiet in the culture, for making space in the modern institution for both personality types. She devotes some time to discussing workplaces that have got the message: offices with quiet spaces to which cubicle dwellers can retreat to concentrate, companies that allow employees to work from home, who ban meetings for all but essential purposes, who encourage discussion and use presentation in its proper place.

In a world in which we are constantly exhorted to become more innovative if our economy is to thrive, companies may want to pay attention to pro
viding a physical and social environment that supports innovation and creativity. Once the new ideas have had chance to germinate and grow, it will be time for the extrovert salesperson to propagate them. At the moment the extrovert has the floor, but to get the best out of everyone, institutions and companies may want to provide an environment in which there’s some Quiet so that they can release The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. cce

Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng., based in Toronto, is a communications instructor and a contributing editor to Canadian Consulting Engineer magazine.


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