Here’s to the quiet ones

Quiet by Susan Cain is a very good book. The central theme is that we’ve designed many of the structures and systems of society around extroverts — people who are outgoing and ‘team players’ in the business jargon — at the expense of introverts. You might have seen Cain’s TED Talk — but even if you have, I’d recommend the book. It’s an example of a book that is better than the talk because it manages to add much more detail and subtlety.

There’s some debate about what constitutes an introvert but at a basic level people who get their energy from being around and interacting with other people are extroverts. People who get their energy from time spent alone are introverts. There’s a spectrum to some extent and just being quiet and shy isn’t necessarily the best sign to look for. As Cain writes:

Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.

I’ve often been frustrated by business thinking that elevates the extrovert CEO to god-like levels of respect and even worse, ignores the evidence about the risks of the decisions they take. In some industries (and startups) that can be a good thing, but very rarely I’d argue. I also think it’s very easy to abuse extroversion if you have it and I think people are beginning to recognise that. Perhaps it’s one reason why politicians are so untrusted.

The other reason I found the book interesting is that it helped me make some sense of my own behaviour. I really don’t like large group meetings and I’m much more comfortable one to one or in small groups. In some ways I’m more comfortable speaking to a large group than ‘networking’ at conferences because it allows me to prepare and I’ve had quite a lot of practice over the years.

It’s probably a bit dangerous to generalise about personalities which is always the risk with books like this. But when you combine it with more extreme books like Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test and books about the combinations of personalities behind great innovations like Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, I think there’s a lot to be learned about how to build great teams and great organisations.

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