I 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.
What 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.
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?
Susan’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).
So 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.