From ASAE13: 5 Ways to Harness the Power of Introverts

During her presentation at ASAE’s Annual Meeting this morning, Susan Cain included a quote from psychologist Adrian Furnham: “The evidence from science suggests that businesses must be insane to use brainstorming groups.” Photo by Chris Durso.

For Susan Cain, it’s not a question of seeing people in black and white. It’s seeing them as extroverts and introverts — and realizing that, even though introverts make up one-third to one-half of the population, society tends to undervalue them and to place a premium on extroverts, according to Cain, author of the bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

In the world of work, that too often translates into a prejudice in favor of leaders who are bold and gregarious, and an overreliance on group brainstorming and other team-based activities. “All of you are spending way too much time in meetings and way too much time in the collaborative process,” Cain said this morning during the opening general session of ASAE’s 2013 Annual Meeting & Exposition at Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center, “and not enough time in solitude.”

Cain offered five tips for creating work environments — including meetings and conferences — that respect and value introverts, whom Cain noted aren’t shy or antisocial but rather “feel at their most alive and their most energized when they’re in environments that are less stimulating”:

1. Rethink social interaction. For introverts, that means scheduling both solo time and more socially oriented “walkarounds” in the office, preparing thoughts and comments for meetings in advance, and sharing them early in the agenda. For extroverts, it’s about having more social breaks and fewer formal meetings, engaging introverts one-on-one, and giving introverts dedicated prep time.

2. Rethink hiring and leadership. Cain, herself an introvert, is in the process of establishing a “quiet leadership” institute based on the principles and research discussed in Quiet. For her partner in the venture she’s chosen a classic extrovert who formerly worked as a financial-services executive — so that the two of them can complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses. “It is one of the great myths of leadership,” Cain said, “that one great respected person should be able to do everything. That is ridiculous.”

3. Rethink public speaking. Many people find the idea of speaking in public to be terrifying — especially introverts. Cain recommends they conquer that fear by starting small. In the year before Quiet was published, she embarked on “my year of speaking dangerously,” talking to a series of groups in “small, manageable situations.” Through the process of desensitization, she said, “eventually over time it gets better and better.”

4. Rethink conferences like the ASAE Annual Meeting. How? By offering content that is interesting and easy to discuss early on, so attendees have something to talk about with one another right off the bat. And by giving attendees permission to take some time for themselves — back in their hotel rooms, or in specially designated “sanctuary” areas — since more than anything introverts need to be able to recharge.

5. Rethink diversity. The business world already appreciates the power of diversity when it comes to race, gender, and sexuality, because of everything people with those different characteristics bring to the workforce. “The exact same thing is true for personality types,” Cain said. “The beauty of it is that none of this takes a lot of time or takes a lot of money.”

Interesting, no? You can read Convene‘s in-depth interview with Cain here.

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