The Courage to Talk Softly and Walk Alone

blogXquietI watch TED talks grudgingly, because TED doesn’t pay the presenters. Not a dime, for some of the best ideas on the planet–while TED does quite well as a brand.

And yet, the quality of TED’s content lures me, and this week I caught a presentation by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Susan became a Wall Street attorney, despite knowing that she loved solitude, loved working on her own rather than in corporate lockstep, loved tranquility rather than confrontation. When she realized how badly her life and her needs had disconnected, she spent seven years (hmm) researching introversion and its role in our culture.

686816-002.jpgWhat she found resonated with me from little on up. These days, most of us work in “open plan” offices. The open plan is cheaper to heat and cool, cheaper to build out, and–I’ve heard this from more than one executive–gives management a sense of being able to police workers without even leaving the glass-walled corner office.

Sir Walter Scott's Work Space

Sir Walter Scott’s Work Space

The open plan also promotes collegiality, collaboration, and innovation… according to management. According to controlled studies, it promotes contagion. Period. I suspect some of the sick leave is a function of the fact for the one-half to one-third of the population who are introverted, that open plan is sheer, unrelenting hell. No privacy, no quiet, no protection from gratuitous stimulation, and what do you know, it closely resembles many of our classrooms.

Why are we doing this? Why create environments that can’t work for one third to one half of the workers or students forced into them?

blogXwinXfriendsSusan’s theory is that we went from small towns and frontier communities, where character mattered, and you knew your neighbors and coworkers, to post-industrial situations where you worked with strangers, and didn’t spend much time with your family. In an office situation, the person most adept at persuasion, at being heard, at charming, became the role model. The effective salesman controlled the environment and got the biggest rewards, and those folks are almost always extroverts.

And yet, the extrovert., the good talker, the charmer, has NO advantage when it comes to generating bright ideas, and is actually a WORSE manager than the introvert, in general. The extrovert will get all excited about ideas, and put their spin and stamp on the ones they like, and will squelch the quiet members of a team. The introvert is far more likely to listen, support, encourage, and yield the floor when somebody’s on a roll.

We have an extroverted CEO (from an advertising agency) to thank for the largely debunked group-think known as brainstorming. Brainstorming actually results in fewer good ideas than does working individually–but the guy in the corner office was all for it, so brainstorm, we did. Multitasking enjoyed similarly groundless good press for years because the boss told us it enhanced productivity (it doesn’t).

heir_244wSo we have, in many cases, the wrong leaders for problem solving purposes, and we’re asking people to work in an environment that for many will reduce the quality and quantity of their output. But two-thirds to one-half of the population is not introverted. For them isolation behind a closed door is sheer torment.

What works for you? Is your professional environment designed to get the best out of you, and does your boss listen and encourage or dwell too much in What I’m Gonna Need You To Do mode? To one commenter, I’ll send an audiobook version of The Heir, a story about a guy who loves peace and quiet, but loves his lady more.


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28 comments on “The Courage to Talk Softly and Walk Alone

  1. I am an introvert, and several of the last 10 years I was working, I was in an “open office” environment. I didn’t mind it so much for myself, but we were supposed to be handling confidential data (salary input) and helping employees with any kind of policy or benefit questions. There was absolutely no privacy. You could hear everyone’s phone or personal discussions. I guess it would have made it easier to keep and eye on what we were up to – if anyone in management were ever around to do it. But they were all busy “meeting.”

    Maybe it was my age (because I had a shorter fuse toward the end of my work life) but I lost a lot of respect of the for those in management. They had us writing our own job descriptions and office policies – which took us away from the work we were supposed to be doing. Made me wonder just what they were being paid for if they didn’t even know what we were doing.

    BTW, the first time I saw and executive salary, all I could think was – wow, unless this guy is in his office pooping gold, he can’t be worth that much money!

    Felt good to get that off my chest! (smile)

    • I guess that’s another aspect of the open office I don’t like, the idea that for the duration of your work day, you aren’t entitled to any privacy at your desk. Yes, you can get up and go outside, but your kid’s guidance counselor doesn’t know to call you when you’re on break, your mother-in-law doesn’t choose to go off on your when you’re on break, your doctor’s office doesn’t only call you when you’re on break.

      And for me, I don’t want to HEAR anybody else’s private business, and the open office plan means I’m pretty much doomed to that dubious honor. It’s disrespectful of the work force. I’m not saying everybody needs a corner office, but I need some protection from constant unwelcome stimuli if I’m to do my best work.

  2. I need quiet. Not the occasional quiet period during the day but Q.U.I.E.T. As a musician, you may think that’s silly or unrealistic but I need quiet so I can make music.

    It’s rare, in my life, to get what I really need but I try to have quiet periods while preparing for rehearsal. I plan those periods jealously, so I can be the best I can be.

    I can, of course, pull off what I need to without those quiet periods. But the price of it to ME is not worth it…I have the ability to do what I do without what I need….that’s what maturity and good technique and training are for.

    • ME TOO.

      I know there are writers who have to noise to write. They buy apps of birdsong, coffeeshop chatter, rain and thunder, cool jazz mixes beach sounds… anything to preserve them from silence.

      I’m the opposite. I must have quiet. Anything else is a shiny object. Passive listening disappeared by the third year of piano lessons and hasn’t been seen since.

      Quiet. An open office plan is my idea of purgatory.

      • That’s one of the curses of being a trained musician…..passive listening becomes impossible. Though I do have to say…when my boys were young, silences bothered me too….if it was TOO quiet, I knew that whatever was happening couldn’t be good LOL!

  3. Ha!!!!!! Spent my time when I was still working, building walls around my open plan office space. A few chairs with stuff on to make a wall. A couple of book cases, a cupboard, all built with the collusion of the person sitting next to me. When screens came available it was bliss and they appeared all over the “open plan office space”. And that was here in Australia.

  4. I am pretty good at concentrating, even when I was working in an open plan office. However, I had to go outside a lot and pace around the parking lot to figure out what to do next.
    I would like to say one thing in favor of brainstorming, though. That’s when it comes in the form of asking people in a critique group—people whose opinion you value—for help with a plot problem. Though in an office, the group tends to include a fair number of idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about.

    • Lil, the interesting thing about CPs is they’re probably all introverts, and thus good listeners. They don’t hammer you with their plot solutions, they suggest, and aren’t trying to get credit for “solving” your book.

      In the office, not so much.

  5. I totally agree with your comments in your blog. I am an introvert and work in an open concept– it totally wears me out because of the noise. I think people don’t give us introverts enough time to process our ideas and management misses our great ideas and suggestions. Thanks for the great blog!

    • That’s exactly Susan Cain’s point. That the BEST ideas come from people capable of quiet reflection, often lengthy periods of quiet reflection, not the guy who gives the best powerpoint and has the best handshake. Charm not only doesn’t guarantee you’ll have good idea, it often goes hand in hand with a need to manipulate and control situations to make the best impression.

      You also might find this article interesting:

  6. I hate my job and am working on a plan to be able to leave it. My boss is an energy vampire and steals energy from me. I resorted to measures to lessen my exposure to him. But this is right, introverts without the big personalities often get overlooked and for some reason aren’t taken seriously. It is annoying and I’m looking for a new career that isn’t boring to me and caters to the side of my personality that needs alone time. (Please don’t enter me into the contest. I commented purely for the discussion.)

  7. I’m an introvert, and I would really hate an open office. Thankfully, I have my own office. I do interact with a lot of people, though, because I am an administrative assistant in an academic department at a university. Sometimes, that does get a little overwhelming, but I enjoy helping people. I am lucky, too, to have a supportive boss.

    There are office settings at the university that are open concept, and I have a lot of concern for the confidentiality in those offices.

  8. Preach it, Grace! Read the rest of Susan’s book–she takes on the open-plan office (aka Cubeville), something of which I, an avowed introvert, live in horror. This is also an excellent read for extroverts, as it helps explain the difference between being an introvert and being shy. (That is, some introverts can project extroversion in certain situations, and are often, therefore, mistaken for extroverts.). This should be required reading for all managers!

    • It should be required reading, period. In my experience, underdogs always know more about overdogs, then overdogs do underdogs. Children know EVERYTHING about their parents, minorities tend to have a very well informed grasp of dominant culture, and in this case, introverts “get” extroverts, but not conversely.

      And yet, introverts make up a bigger percentage of the population than registered Republicans. By our nature, we’re harder to get to know, but we have such a contribution to make!

  9. Definite Introvert and I loved Susan’s book. I did work in Silicon Valley for several years but was lucky enough that, while we had cubicles, they had walls that were about 5 feet high so not too bad. Of course another company bought us and decided the cubicle walls needed windows but the height remained so it was okay. I have always wondered why bosses supposedly hire the smartest, most competent people and then treat them like children who need constant supervision. I also need quiet and it’s amazing that I’ve lived with a man for over 35 years (I was a baby when it started, of course) who pretty much has to have the TV on while he’s at home, regardless of the room he’s actually hanging out in (including ones from which he cannot possibly hear the TV). I personally might never even turn the darn thing on unless I plan to watch an actual program (not his 15 seconds each of every channel that’s available in succession). I am, however, fortunate that I now work from home and have my own little office with a door I can close to get my quiet, and get warmer sometimes, too (my partner also likes much colder temperatures than I do–sometimes I’m amazed we’re still together).
    I also don’t need to be in the draw since I think I won a book in the Mother’s Day post.

    • I’ve been around the folks who need white noise, though fortunately, I never lived with one. There’s no TV in my house–probably the equivalent for them of having no cubicle walls for me!

  10. I worked for years in my own office. Although the door was open, the interruptions were few. I took some family leave when my mother broke her hip and was gone for a month and when I returned I’d been moved to a shared office, with glass walls and many interruptions. The boss’s son wanted his own office and I wasn’t there to protest. It was awful. I dealt with it as best I could, but I know my attention to detail was impaired by all the interruptions. I was a cost analyst for a manufacturing company and attention to detail was important.

    I’m so happy to be retired now!!!

    I admit I love my solitude. My boyfriend loves to be with people. A very good reason to maintain separate residences! LOL

    • The interesting thing about that opposites attract dynamic is that as a team, you have all the bases covered. In a social situation, he can take the lead. When somebody has to man (or woman) the turret in solitude for long stretches, you’re the best resource. Learning to appreciate the differences can be tough though–I like your separate spaces approach.

  11. I am now retired and have all the isolation I can desire. However, when I was a primary teacher, I rebelled against being told what to do (useless I know given the pressure to produce clones from pre-K on up)and when I finally found a school in which the administration wisely (for me)left me alone (well, as alone as one can be with 22 6-year olds all day)and stopped “micromanaging”, I thrived on exploring my own ideas and experimenting with the techniques of others and wonder of wonders, my kids did too. Funny how that happens…I miss it a lot.

    • Teaching has to be one of the toughest jobs, especially now. I expect there will be a backlash against the no recess/tons of homework/test’em till they drop mentality, but I feel so sorry for the kids and teachers dealing with it now. For what we spend on education, we get amazing results… but that’s only because of teachers who don’t give up or get out. In Maryland, about 50 percent of all our teachers are within five years of retirement. Not a good feeling.

  12. I am an introvert, my idea of a perfect afternoon is a Saturday, it is cold and rainy outside, I am inside with a good book, a nice pot of tea, the cats are in the other room asleep and my husband has gone out. I am required to work at service desks which can be stressful, my office has a door, which is lovely. We have a church function coming up and I came across a good idea, I then passed it on to the right people. Brainstorming can help, but good ideas can come from anywhere.

    • For me, the best ideas come from extensive cogitation, both passive and active, and then, at some point when I’m in screensaver mode–driving a familiar route, playing solitaire, the synthesized idea will swim up from the bottom of my awareness, and I’ll have to drop what I’m doing to write it down. I’ve lost great books because I didn’t write down the brilliant premise when it dropped into my lap. I’m not letting THAT happen again.

  13. I’ve never had the luxury of quiet where I work, which is funny because I am an IT person and let me tell you, you can’t write complex code when you can’t hear the voice in your head for all the conversations going on around you, and holy cow, your neighbor in the cubicle farm who wants to have talk radio blasting out. Or even worse, bad preachers – I’m talking the ranting kind.

    When I have something complicated to work on, I ended up staying late after everybody left or coming in on the weekend. Some of my coworkers used ear buds but I didn’t find it effective.

    I’m looking forward to retirement. Or a job change where I answer the phone and give answers to relatively simple, recurring questions.

    • Your experience is not unusual. We can’t focus in a busy environment, can’t spend all that energy blocking out distractions and still get the same amount of work done as when we have door we can close when we want to. For me, the privacy issue also matters, though in some businesses that’s not a concern.

      I couldn’t do it. I’d have to find other work, though as one friend puts it, finding a job IS a job.