The rise of the introvert

Business has always been seen as the preserve of the big personality. However, in her new book, Quiet, Susan Cain says it's time more thoughtful and reserved types got their due. Will introverts lead a quiet revolution?

by John Morrish
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Between a third and a half of the people you manage are not fulfilling their potential. The way they think, the way they communicate, and the way they work are at odds with modern business culture. And it is getting worse.

Those are the implications of Quiet, a provocative American bestseller by Susan Cain, a former corporate lawyer. Subtitled 'The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking', the book suggests that, by succumbing to the noisy charms of the extrovert, society and business are missing out on the insight and creativity of the more thoughtful part of the population. The undervaluing of introverts, Cain suggests, is as damaging as the centuries-old prejudice against women. 'I really do believe that's where we are,' she says. 'There's a bias against half of the population and they are discounted for a trait that goes to the core of who they are. I also believe that, just as with women in the 1950s, we are poised on the brink of a very dramatic change in the attitude to introversion.'

But what exactly is an introvert? In the popular imagination, an introvert is the wallflower at the party, standing on the edge, too shy to mingle and unhappy as a result. Not necessarily, says Cain. While the extrovert works the room, flitting from contact to contact and enjoying the banter, the introvert makes serious conversation with one or two people and then goes home content. Although some introverts are shy, not all are: they are just people who value their own company and crave time alone to reflect and recharge their batteries.

Introversion and extroversion (or extraversion: both spellings are used) were first identified by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, in 1921. While much of the psychoanalytical thought of those days has been junked as unscientific, the introversion-extroversion axis forms the bedrock of the modern science of personality. It is one of the four axes underlying the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure and evaluate the personal characteristics of individuals. It is also one of the 'Big Five' measures of personality favoured by adherents of the rival Five Factor Model: indeed, it may be the most important, with only neuroticism coming close.

'It's truly about how we get our energy,' says Lisa Petrilli, a leadership consultant and author of The Introvert's Guide to Success in Business and Leadership. 'Introverts get their energy from their inner world, from their ideas, memories and thoughts, and are excited about those ideas when they have some time to really think about them or reflect on them and maybe share them with one or two other people.

'Extroverts get their energy from the outer world of people and activities and events. So when they are in that outer world, with other people in activities and events, they are gaining in energy, whereas introverts find those experiences draining.'

Cain's book includes a questionnaire inviting readers to discover their own place on the introvert-extrovert scale: 'I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities', it begins. The more statements you agree with, the more introvert you are. In her own summary, introverts tend to be 'reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative'. Indeed, she comes close to identifying introversion with everything virtuous and appealing: Quiet is, at least in part, a group hug for an underappreciated minority.

It is also, though, a useful pop-science primer on current research on the subject. She finds that introversion is likely to be innate: it can be detected in babies as young as four months old. It is best understood as a kind of oversensitivity. Babies who will grow into introverts react noisily and excitedly to outside stimulation. It is the quiet babies who become extroverts: they need more stimulation to get them interested and involved, and they will be that way in later life, drawing on the energy of those around them.

No one, of course, is wholly introvert or extrovert. (Jung said that anyone who was would be 'in a lunatic asylum'.) But since the early 20th century, there has been a tendency to push children towards extroversion, with introversion seen as undesirable, even abnormal. Cain calls it the 'Extrovert Ideal', in which the ability to make small-talk, hold forth to groups, think on your feet and generally be a performer has become the goal. It is especially dominant in US business and the Anglo-Saxon working cultures which follow its lead. (Asians are more inclined to value reticence and caution.) Western education, from kindergarten to Harvard Business School, encourages and favours the extrovert. And, increasingly, business practices play to the strengths of those who speak and think at the same time and who enjoy group-work.

In that, thinks Cain, we may be making a big mistake. Brainstorming, a business staple from the 1950s, may be worse than useless. According to organisational psychologist Adrian Furnham, who has studied the evidence, 'business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups'. Open-plan offices, perhaps more of a novelty in the States than they are here, 'reduce productivity and impair memory', Cain says. Speaking at the TED conference in California in March, she garnered spontaneous applause for her attack on 'the madness for the constant group-work we have in our offices'.

The benefits of collective thinking have become a modern orthodoxy. As author Malcolm Gladwell put it, 'innovation - the heart of the knowledge economy - is fundamentally social'. Cain turns that on its head: serious original thought and the expertise that generates it are almost always individual. Her heroes are Moses, Einstein and Steve Wozniak, creator of the first Apple computer. She quotes his advice: 'Work alone. You're going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you're working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.'

The much ballyhooed collective intelligence of the internet is a myth, she insists. Group-created projects such as Wikipedia and open-source software were created by individuals - most likely introverts - working on their own and communicating by email. She has a point.

There is, says Marti Laney, psychotherapist and author of The Introvert Advantage, an assumption that introverts don't have much to offer, 'but if you have an expert on something, in general that person is introverted, because it takes those skills to do that. Extroverts are very good at getting things done and going forward but often they don't have much compass as a group, unless they also have some introverts around to ground them. It's a blend that we need.'

But, surely, leaders need to be extroverts? That's the business school orthodoxy, which values and teaches presentational skills. But, again, that is in need of a rethink. 'Our vision of a leader is somebody who's very bold and charismatic and gregarious, and yet there's all sorts of evidence that this isn't right,' says Cain. She refers back to the research Jim Collins did for his 2001 book Good to Great, which looked at the characteristics of the most effective business leaders. 'All the leaders he looked at, from all these top performing companies he profiled, were very humble. They were described as modest, shy and unassuming. When you couple those kinds of traits with a very strong will, you get very interesting results.'

In fact, introverts do rather well at the top of big corporations. Men such as Bill Gates and Jim Goodnight of software producer SAS are programmers by background, a quintessentially introvert profession. They find they can operate very well by working through small meetings, writing and one-to-one conversations. Warren Buffett is another effective leader widely described as an introvert. (Even Richard Branson, a fixture of the party scene, has claimed to be an introvert, though he hides it well.) Research quoted by Cain indicates that introverts do particularly well when leading extrovert teams: they stand aside and let the good ideas come through, rather than clashing with them.

Extrovert leaders, on the other hand, may be good at rallying the troops - particularly introvert troops - but they can be a liability. According to Cain's whistle-stop tour of neurological science, extroverts 'seem to be more susceptible than introverts to the reward-seeking cravings of the old brain'. The limbic system, in other words, the part that seeks pleasure, excitement, money, status and 'buzz'. As a result, extroverts don't know when to stop. In the wake of the 2008 banking crisis, there was speculation that it was exacerbated by the presence of too few women and too much testosterone in the boardrooms. Cain suggests that too much dopamine, the brain chemical of choice for the reward-seeking extrovert, may have had more to do with it. Introverts, on the other hand, are dominated by the neo-cortex, the part of the brain responsible for thinking, planning, language and decision making, all of which can make extroverts regard them as party-poopers and nay-sayers.

The truth is, we are all somewhere on the introvert-extrovert continuum. And both types of personality are needed in business: Steve Wozniak had Steve Jobs; Bill Gates had Steve Ballmer. We need to learn to understand each other. Extroverts can make an effort to listen to what their introvert colleagues have to say and not be swayed by the loudest voices. 'You need to do this as a manager,' says Cain, 'not out of moral convictions but because you as a manager want the best out of people's brains. If you continue as we have been, just setting things up for extroverts, you're not maximising people's talents.' Introverts, meanwhile, can make more effort to get their thoughts across, to smile, to make eye contact, to speak up.

'You have to talk, you have to negotiate, you have to motivate, and that does require interaction,' says the business psychologist Richard Plenty, managing director of the organisation and leadership practice This Is. 'That's just part of the cut and thrust, the fibre of modern business. I urge most of my clients who need to do those things to fake it.'

Such British pragmatism finds less favour in the US, where the identity politics of introversion are becoming entrenched. Should introverts, an embattled minority in the making, fake it? 'No,' says Laney. 'Because I think part of our job is to educate people that people work differently, think differently.' Petrilli agrees: 'I have heard from so many people who have tried to act like extroverts and it doesn't work: you're not authentic. People will not trust you if you are not authentic. So, embrace the fact you're an introvert. Understand that it's not a bad thing; it's solely about your preference, and how we love to be in that world of ideas.'

The occupational psychologist Emma Donaldson-Feilder is another who makes a plea for understanding. 'Introverts have just as much to offer as extroverts in terms of what they can bring in a business context. One of the key things in a work setting is that you build understanding between different people, so that they "get" each other and understand that other people may have a different approach, and that that's not wrong, or bad, or substandard.'

And there are things in the modern world that suit introverts. They like writing, in email and company intranets, because that allows time for thought: introverts hate to be put on the spot. They like working from home. They can network online as effectively as extroverts can work a room. In any case, introverts can train themselves to make social chit-chat. They can cope with noisy conferences and dinners providing they are allowed a bit of downtime. They can speak in public, if prepared, because that draws on their inner world. And because they are good listeners, they are good in many business roles, even sales.

Spare a thought, though, for the poor extrovert, required to move in the other direction. 'The reality,' says Amanda Potter, occupational psychologist and managing director of Zircon Management Consulting, 'is that it is much harder for an extrovert to operate in an introverted world. There are times when you need to work independently, use reflection, get into deep thought. Extroverts find that more difficult because they find creativity comes through discussion, through conversation and talking to people. The joke is that an extrovert's brain doesn't engage until his mouth engages. An introvert thinks, then speaks, then thinks; an extrovert will speak, then think, then speak.'

Marcus Hayes, planning director at the communications consultancy The Storytellers, found when he took an MBTI test that he had 'a slight bias towards introversion'. He finds at different times he needs both introvert and extrovert styles of working. 'There are moments when I find the need for external energy, not just emotionally but to help me to crack problems; and there are moments - and they can be quite abrupt - where you're in a group and realise that you've got to take something away and think about it on your own.'

'The benefits of the introvert, I think, are what goes on in one's head. Before a meeting, I will often find myself thinking through what's going to happen and almost creating a mental rehearsal. I don't know whether an extrovert is able to do that.

'One of the main advantages for me is the self-reliance that aspect of your personality gives you. If I know I've got a particular problem, I might get stimulus from gathering a group of people around and brainstorming what that problem might be, but, equally, I know I can take that problem away with me. I work in the strangest places. My journey to work is work as far as I'm concerned. Walking the dog at the weekends is work. Some of the best ideas pop out during those moments of solitude.'

As a founder of his business, he has been able to set things up so he can work to his best advantage and surround himself with colleagues whose styles complement his own. One of his co-founders, he says, is very extrovert. 'I find him very stimulating to work with. He, equally, is very respectful of the way that I work. He will often get to the point where he'll say: "You probably need to go away and think about this, Marcus." And I'll go: "This is fantastic: I'm really energised but now I'll go away and write it on a sheet of paper." And the process of putting my thoughts down on paper will take it to the next stage.'

The secret, he says, is being flexible. And that's something we can all agree on, extroverts and introverts alike.



1. Embrace your introversion: it's not a failing.

2. Prepare: read the agenda and think through your ideas first.

3. Make contacts online and through social media before you meet them.

4. Favour one-to-one meetings with colleagues and contacts.

5. Put your ideas in writing before and after meetings.

6. Keep conversations going while you are thinking.

7. Look as if you are listening: make eye contact, nod and smile.

8. Make sure you get your turn to speak: interrupt if necessary.

9. Practise your interpersonal skills.

10. Make sure you get downtime at conferences and all-day events.



1. Don't use group-work when recruiting: it favours the extrovert.

2. At big events, schedule in downtime or create an 'introverts' room'.

3. Respect people's need for quiet in the office.

4. Eschew compulsory socialising.

5. Make sure everyone gets a chance to speak.

6. Invite written contributions before and after meetings.

7. Don't interrupt when introverts speak: encourage them.

8. Don't misinterpret silence as disapproval or disagreement.

9. Remember: 'There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.' (Susan Cain)

10. Don't expect to get instant feedback.




Answer true or false


- I prefer one-to-one conversations to group activities.

- I often prefer to express myself in writing.

- I enjoy solitude.

- I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame and status.

- I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter to me.

- People tell me that I'm a good listener.

- I'm not a big risk-taker.

- I enjoy work that allows me to 'dive in' with few interruptions.

- I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close friends or family members.

- People describe me as 'soft-spoken' or 'mellow'.

- I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it's finished.

- I dislike conflict.

- I do my best work on my own.

- I tend to think before I speak.

- I feel drained after being out and about, even if I've enjoyed myself.

- I often let calls go through to voicemail.

- If I had to choose, I'd prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled.

- I don't enjoy multi-tasking.

- In classroom situations, I prefer lectures to seminars.

The more 'trues', the more introvert


(Questionnaire from Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking (2012) by Susan Cain, Viking, £20.00).

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