Susan Cain: Debunking Myths About Introverts

susan cain

When you think of an introvert, what comes to mind? Odds are, it’s an array of stereotypes: someone who is shy, quiet or solitary, and who cringes at the thought of public speaking or taking the lead. But what if everything you think you know about introverts is wrong? 

According to Susan Cain, author of the New York Times bestseller “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” these negative myths come from a widespread cultural bias toward extroverts. She even founded an online movement called Quiet Revolution to help dispel bias, raise awareness and celebrate introversion. 

We spoke to Cain to learn more about introverts’ true powers and potential, and how employers can best support people with this personality style.

Introverts sensitive to stimulation, but not necessarily shy

As a self-described introvert, writing “Quiet” was a personal project for Cain. It was inspired by her tenure in the corporate world, where she saw differences in communication styles often falsely attributed to gender.

“Now everybody talks about being an introvert, but back then … we didn’t even have a vocabulary … let alone the insights needed to guide us in harness[ing] everyone’s strengths in the workplace,” Cain says.

So, what does the term “introvert” mean, anyway? Contrary to popular belief, introverts are not necessarily shy or antisocial. Many introverts enjoy social gatherings, networking and even public speaking, and can be just as charismatic as their extroverted peers. 

What separates introverts is a shared sensitivity to overstimulation, says Cain, as well as a preference for deep, uninterrupted thinking and smaller groups. This gives them a leg up in creative work, which requires individual focus. While extroverts are refueled by high-energy environments, introverts often prefer to recharge alone, such as by taking a long walk or reading a book. 

Cain finds that approximately one-half to one-third of people are introverts; in fact, you might not even realize you’re an introvert until taking her online assessment. But if this personality type is so common, why does it remain so misunderstood? 

American society privileges the “Extroverted Ideal,” Cain says, treating this as a norm. It celebrates those who are outgoing, outspoken and thrive in the spotlight, while the invaluable talents of introverts often go overlooked. 

Introverts make the art of listening look easy

One of introverts’ greatest assets is listening, which sounds easier than it is. Anyone who’s either seen a good interview knows listening is an art, requiring genuine curiosity. This fits introverts to a tee, as they love to understand and ask questions — making them an asset to employers. 

“Listening is profound, because you find out what people actually have to contribute, get people’s ideas out and [put] their skills … to use,” Cain explains.

Introverts are also blessed with the ability to focus intently on a project or problem, and thrive with long periods of deep concentration. 

“We’re all losing our ability to focus in that way,” mulls Cain. “Introverts are going to be able to hang onto that skill more readily … just because of their nature.”

The bias toward extroverts pervades our lives

Cain believes the push toward extroversion is embedded throughout public life. 

“These ideals really shape the institutions where we spend most of our time,” she explains. School is one powerful example, where children are expected to do group work; thrive in a noisy environment without much down time; and move seamlessly from one activity to another.

“You’re actually graded on, and evaluated socially on, how extroverted you are,” says Cain. “How many friends do you have? How much do you participate? All those questions are guiding your way.”

The bias toward extroversion continues into adult life, where workers now contend with open-office floor plans, group projects, frequent meetings and even mandatory team-building activities. These distractions threaten the focused time introverts need. 

Like schoolchildren, professionals are also evaluated on metrics of group work and personal characteristics, which can impact their potential for success. For instance, managers often assume leaders need to be extroverted, yet research shows introverts have equally effective leadership skills. One study even finds introverted CEOs may be better leaders

This is a pernicious example of the “Extroverted Ideal” bias at work; while many assume leaders should be hyper-social, Cain says introverted leaders are “more likely to actually listen to, draw out and rely on the talents of [their] people.” 

Rethink evaluation methods and office space to support introverts at work

For employers who want to be more inclusive, Cain suggests re-evaluating your physical workspace. 

Open floor plans have benefits, but they can also be distracting — and they’re one of introverts’ top complaints, Cain says. Employers with this setup can help by providing designated quiet zones, walled-in workspaces or private cubicles where introverts can work. This can help solve for another pain point: finding time to focus.  

“What introverts really crave is the time to get into that delicious state of deep flow; to be able to put your head down … and just do your work,” Cain explains. “That is very hard to come by in an office, because you’re always being interrupted.” 

Consider blocking off time for undisturbed work, such as a regular “no-meetings” day. This can benefit employers, too, since introverts’ deep dives often lead to unique perspectives or ideas. 

When it comes to workplace evaluations, managers can help by ensuring they assess measurable aspects of job performance — not just personality traits.

“It’s not to say that questions like the type of personal presence you have … aren’t important,” explains Cain. “But are we overvaluing those things and undervaluing other kinds of contributions?” 

Finally, one of the best ways to support introverts at work is to simply ask what they need. Introverts tend to avoid confrontation, which includes raising concerns about extroverted norms. 

Look deeper than charisma when hiring

Introverts face an extra challenge in the already difficult hiring process, says Cain, because “there can be a tendency to just judge a candidate based on how sparkly they are in the interview.” 

To combat this, Cain suggests giving top candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their skills directly. She gives the real-life example of an applicant for an editor position. She did fine in the interview, but didn’t necessarily stand out. This changed dramatically when she completed a test exercise. 

“Not only was her editing incredible, but she was just such a delight to work with,” recalls Cain. “Through the substantive interactions of getting a job done, you came to see what she was actually like.”

Cain also cautions against marathon interviews, where candidates meet with several members of the hiring team back-to-back. 

“There are some jobs where being able to function in a setting like that is very central to the role,” she says. “But in many jobs that’s not the case, and you’re probably … weeding out people you shouldn’t.”

Employers are learning to understand and support introverts

Since Susan Cain first started researching “Quiet” in 2005, public discussions have changed. Thanks to her work, employers are finally recognizing and embracing introverts’ strengths. 

Introverts are often focused, curious, creative and extremely effective leaders. From new hires to the C-suite, introverts are ready for the spotlight — and it’s time to let them shine.

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