Susan Cain, offers tips on how introverts can survive a corporate culture that's biased to benefit the outgoing
Susan, thank you for talking to WOOL. You graduated from Harvard with a law degree and went on to spend almost a decade at Wall Street. Then switched gears, delivered one of the most popular TED talks of all times that shows up on Bill Gates' recommended TED talks list, and wrote a couple of bestselling books. As a self-confessed introvert, how did you handle the risk that came with this transformation?
In our culture, people applaud risk-takers but personally, I don't believe in taking gigantic financial risks because it just leads to a lot of stress. I had wanted to be a writer since I was about four years old but working at Wall Street, I almost forgot about it. However, I could never shake off the feeling that one experiences when traveling and living in a foreign country - it's exciting but there is no sense of belonging! At 33, I was at a cross road in my legal career. I decided to take a break, so I got a leave of absence. And 24 hours into that leave of absence, I started writing again. Looking back, I feel the fact that I could structure my life in a manner such that I could leave Wall Street if I needed to, made the transition a lot more manageable. For a few years, I continued writing on-the-side. I worked a job to pay bills. I wrote a memoir, then a book - I never tried publishing these. It was only later that I got the idea for Quiet (the book went on to become a best seller).
The Power of Introverts in a
World That Can't Stop Talking
- Susan Cain
There are enough studies that state introverted leaders often offer better outcomes than extroverted leaders because leadership is not just about being gregarious or audacious, it is also about caring, listening and having the courage to live with conviction.
Interesting. Apart from risk-taking, which is a struggle for most introverts, there's networking, negotiations, and collaborations - all critical mandates needed to build a career but perhaps much more in favor of people who are extroverts and love to interact. In your opinion, how can introverted professionals best deal with these challenges, and still be productive and successful?
I think it's a question of figuring out how to draw on your own strength and make it work in a given environment. Also, it's not as though I don't like people or that I don't like interacting. It's just that I prefer collaborating on a quieter, one-on-one basis. Introverts just have to reconcile with stepping outside their comfort zone more often than extroverts. It's not easy so I hope they are in jobs that they love, doing work that matters to them so the effort feels a lot less of a task. Being aware that operating outside of your comfort zone is a coping mechanism, helps. Reward yourself at the end of the day; do something that emphasizes what makes you happy - balance it out. Also, recognize that most jobs are structured in a manner that allows people some alone-time as well. For instance, negotiations in a legal firm meant a lot of hustling but there were days when I spent quiet time drafting documents, thinking and strategizing.
I think organizations have to include this topic in their inclusion and diversity agenda, just like issues of gender and race are treated.
Being bold and bossy are almost prerequisite qualities in a leader. Most introverts don't possess these, and often, decision making, risk taking and people management are not their forte. How do you think introverts can reconcile and fit into leadership roles?
It's a real misunderstanding dominant in our culture that leaders must be alpha, whether male or female. Look around and there are so many examples of introverted leaders. Just yesterday, I attended an event with Richard Branson (founder of the Virgin group) and he describes himself as a strong introvert. I mean, when you meet him, it is obvious that he is one. Larry Page of Google is another. Revolutionaries like Steve Wozniak (inventor and co founder of Apple) worked best in solitude. Beth Comstock, former vice chair at GE, now has a new book releasing, and she is a self-confessed introvert. There are enough studies that state introverted leaders often offer better outcomes than extroverted leaders because leadership is not just about being gregarious or audacious, it is also about caring, listening and having the courage to live with conviction. Richard was describing how much listening matters to him. Talking to Virgin's flight attendants made him realize their shoes were uncomfortable. He changed the shoes because the crew have to be on their feet, serving people for hours! Deep listening makes a difference.
What about risk assessment, which is so often the game-changer? Introverts almost always tend to overthink decisions. How does this play on the trades they bet on?
Well, it's true that introverts have a tendency to overthink. As a result, they are unlikely to take wild risks that might lead to mounting losses - how is that a bad thing? As I said in the beginning, we live in a culture where risk taking is celebrated. I believe the 2008 crisis was brought upon by people who were not listening and took undue risks. I once read a study on Wall Street that mentioned introverts actually make better traders because they take risks that are more measured. And I come back to the point of awareness - if you know you have the tendency to overthink - strategize. Make sure you have people around who can offer that necessary check when you're overthinking.
Do you think the battle becomes tougher for women because it's almost a double whammy?
Yes! Let me put it this way - if you are an introverted man, you are still given authority before you even open your mouth. Introverted women need to strategize twice as much because they are soft spoken. Train yourself to figure out what you believe in and whenever you speak, do so from a place of conviction, emotionally; conviction matters, and it is something you can train yourself to do well.
It is understandable when organizations want to reduce rent or real estate cost per person. But the truth is that open offices are not good for people, their productivity and creativity. If companies cannot allow enough space to their employees - build open offices that have enough private places within them so that people can move into those nooks when they need to.
I want to talk about the physical workspace. In my experience, people feel uncomfortable in open offices because it erodes basic levels of privacy. But cost pressures are real too. When companies can make a 20%-25% reduction in real estate cost, the case for having open offices becomes much stronger. How can one harmonize?
Yes, I am glad you bring up this point because cost cutting is a real challenge these days. And it is understandable when organizations want to reduce rent or real estate cost per person. But the truth is that open offices are not good for people, their productivity and creativity. If companies cannot allow enough space to their employees - build open offices that have enough private places within them so that people can move into those nooks when they need to.
What about co-working spaces? You are a writer, I presume you work in cafes and co-working spaces all the time?
I do love co-working spaces. In co-working spaces, I can be anonymous even though I am sitting in an open and shared office. I have the energy of other people around me but I know that I won't be interrupted at any moment because I'm not operating within the sphere of social, organizational and professional connections and obligations. It helps me concentrate and get into the flow. But I must caution that there are good co-working spaces and the not so good ones - they might look alike but they are not the same.
How can organizations be more sensitive to the needs of introverted people and operate, and make changes to accommodate them better?
1. What's the last book you read?
Believe it or not, the Harry Potter series by J K Rowling!
2. What's the first word that pops into your mind when I say the words
Offsite - SIGH
Revolution - Change, Non-Violence
Social Sharing - It could be good and bad - ambivalent
3. What three traits are an introvert's best qualities?
Thinking on a deeper level
4. Tell us how you, as an introvert, love unwinding?
Playing tennis, reading and writing, with a latte!
5. What's your favourite phone application?
Would be a PODCAST application. I listen to PODCASTS a lot
6.Quick three tips to a person struggling with public speaking, something you have battled and overcome?
7. To get through the process of writing - coffee or chocolate?
8. More of a globe trotter or a home bug?
Both. I love traveling but when I am not, I love to hang out at home
9. What is your next book idea?
Exploring how loss and impermanence fuel love, growth and art. And, the value of imperfection