Open Your Ears to Your Quiet Employees

By: David Tobenkin

Many managers are missing out on the strengths introverted employees bring to work.

A silent power lies under-recognized and under-utilized in many organizations: the power of the introvert.

That's the message in Susan Cain's new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Cain, a former corporate attorney and negotiations consultant, says many U.S. employers promote outspoken extroverts and ignore the workplace strengths of introverts—those who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying, innovation and creation over self-promotion, and working on their own over working in teams.

"If [managers and executives] want to get the best of their people's brains and create organizations with the best morale, they need to know what the introverts are thinking," says Cain. "Don't fool yourself that they are a small part of the population. Instead, they represent one-third to one-half of the population. You may not realize that, because many introverts act like extroverts because they know that's what's expected of them."

Supervisors and executives who fail to recognize introverted employees and manage them appropriately, says Cain, will be less adept at tapping their strengths in the workplace, including thinking deeply and carefully, strategizing, solving complex problems, and functioning as contrarians who can detect flaws in the conventional wisdom.

Cain, who calls herself a classic introvert, opens Quiet with her own experience as a junior associate at a Wall Street law firm who is unexpectedly forced to take an unfamiliar role as a lead negotiator facing off against table-pounding opposing counsel. By focusing on the facts, relying on her own rigorous analysis, and questioning her adversaries' assumptions—all strengths of an introvert—Cain says she turned the tables on them, secured a favorable resolution for her client, and was later offered a job by the law firm representing her opponent.

Questioning managerial assumptions about introverts can be a first step toward better managing these employees, Cain says. For example, while successful salespeople are often assumed to be extroverts, some introverts excel at sales because they listen and react well to their clients' needs.

"In the book, I profile Jon Berghoff, a salesperson with an astronomical record who does well in part because he follows the maxim 'We have two ears and one mouth, and we should use them proportionately,'" Cain says.

Managers may have to make an effort to draw out introverts' strengths and ensure that their contributions don't get crowded out by more outspoken colleagues, she says.

For example, managers seeking creative approaches to problems, an area where introverts typically shine, may wish to ask their employees to devise possible solutions alone before sharing their ideas. Similarly, when seeking the wisdom of the crowd, managers should gather it electronically or in writing, and make sure employees can't see each other's ideas until everyone has had a chance to contribute.

"Face-to-face contact is important because it builds trust, but group dynamics contain unavoidable impediments to creative thinking," Cain says. "Arrange for people to interact one-on-one and in small, casual groups."

Tapping introverts' strengths may require managers to check their own tendency to favor extroverts and look objectively at the value of their contributions. "Don't mistake assertiveness or eloquence for good ideas," writes Cain.

And don't underestimate introverts' leadership potential. Cain notes that employers with proactive workforces may perform better under an introverted leader than under an extroverted one.

"Extroverts tend to get very excited about things, but are less likely [than introverts] to let people run with their ideas," she says.

David Tobenkin is a freelance journalist based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Email: [email protected]