Editorial: The Introverted Leader — An Oxymoron?

November
,
2016

For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought of myself as an introvert. Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, explains that introversion is a preference for lower-stimulation environments. Introverts draw their energy from quiet reflection and solitude; extroverts thrive in crowds and crave stimulation in order to feel at their best.

Cain has written and spoken about the societal and cultural bias against introversion and the negative impacts of that bias. “Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation,” she points out in a TED Talk. Instead of sitting at desks arranged in rows, today’s students are more likely to sit in pods and work in groups. Most modern workplaces have open office plans, without walls, “where we are subject to the constant noise and gaze of our coworkers,” Cain says. These arrangements make it difficult for introverts to find the solitude and mind space to work at their best.

Considering that one-third to one-half of the population is introverted, brainstorming may not be the most-effective way to generate ideas and solve problems. Groups often follow the dominant or most charismatic person in the room, “even though there’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas,” Cain says. And although the best talkers might indeed have the best ideas, they might not. “Much better for everybody to go off by themselves, generate their own ideas freed from the distortions of group dynamics, and then come together as a team to talk them through in a well-managed environment,” she advises.

Cain also notes that introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions. That’s a shame, because as leadership coach Jeff Boss writes on Entrepreneur.com, introverts make great leaders because they are prudent, learn by listening, leverage their quiet nature, demonstrate humility, manage uncertainty, and are comfortable working alone.

A study by Adam Grant of Harvard Business School and his colleagues found that pairing extroverted leaders with employees who take initiative and speak out can lead to friction, while pairing such employees with an introverted leader can be a pathway to success. “In a dynamic, unpredictable environment, introverts are often more effective leaders — particularly when workers are proactive, offering ideas for improving the business. Such behavior can make extroverted leaders feel threatened. In contrast, introverted leaders tend to listen more carefully and show greater receptivity to suggestions, making them more effective leaders of vocal teams,” they wrote in Harvard Business Review. That’s good advice to keep in mind when we are forming teams and assigning work.

Geoffrey James, a contributing editor to Inc.com, has good news for introverts: “Introverts will soon rule the business world. While introverts innovate, extroverts are mostly talk. So in a business world where innovation is critical, do we really need the extroverts?” Yes, of course we do, but let’s capitalize on each other’s strengths.

While introverts and extroverts inherently behave differently in social situations, as we enter the end-of-year holiday season and face numerous celebrations, both should heed Emily Frangenberg’s advice in this month’s YPOV column, “Happy Hour Etiquette: How to Behave at After-Hours Functions.”

Cynthia F. Mascone, Editor-in-Chief

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Author Bios: 

Cynthia Mascone

Cindy Mascone is Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Engineering Progress, AIChE’s member magazine. She has more than 25 years of experience as a technical editor and writer, including four years as the head of her own freelance consulting business, Engineered Writing. Previously, she worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.

She holds a BS in chemical engineering and engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon Univ., and has been an active member of AIChE and Society of Women Engineers....Read more

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