IT Management

How to Harness the Power of Introverts in IT

In an era of loud voices and share-all tendencies, one expert advises tapping into the value of the quiet people in the room. Susan Cain, TED talk presenter and author of the popular book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, offered advice in two areas — creativity and leadership — to IT leaders attending the annual Educause conference last week.

Cain is the co-founder of the Quiet Schools Network and the Quiet Leadership Institute, divisions of her company Quiet Revolution. Both emphasize "ambassador" programs, which put in place individuals trained to understand the neurobiology of introverts and extroverts and to promulgate self-awareness throughout the organization.

The goal for the school program, as with the corporate one, is to enlist people to work as "quiet ambassadors" and help others "tap into the power of quiet leadership." "We are living right now in a cultural environment that is telling us both explicitly and implicitly that there is only one style of leadership and one way of thinking," she told Educause attendees. But it shouldn't be that way: "Extroverts and introverts tend to work well together. The best management teams have both types."

As Cain explained, introverts "have nervous systems that react more to stimulations at all times. We're more alive when there's a little less going on." Introverts on the run "start to feel that jangled feeling." Extroverts, on the other hand, "react less to stimulation. Your liability is when there's not enough happening. You start to get that bored listless feeling." A third group — "ambiverts" — is "smack in the middle," she said, able in some cases to "control the way you go in any given moment."

While introverts tend to make up about a third to a half of the population at large, Cain said, among the college and university IT leaders and others in the audience, that proportion was considerably higher — about 70 percent, according to an informal show of hands. But whatever the count, "We're not making the most of their hearts and their minds," she said.

Acknowledging that both types of individuals are in and running your teams can help you make the most of their differences, Cain said. Her advice:

  • Get away from groupthink. "In a typical meeting, three people do 70 percent of the talking," noted Cain, who recommended allowing time for brainstorming outside of groups. "People who brainstorm by themselves come up with more ideas and better ideas than people who brainstorm together," she said. "If you want to get the best ideas, try a hybrid. Send people off to do deep thinking. Then come back."
  • For deep thinking, take alone time. Cain shared a short video of an experiment in which a test subject demonstrated just how strongly others in the majority can influence our own thinking. "We are all incredibly conformist to a horrifying degree," Cain said. "If we want to get really good ideas and make our own decisions and have the courage of convictions behind those convictions, we have to come up with the solitude we need to come up with those ideas."
  • Introverts, push outside your comfort zone.For introverts who have trouble speaking up in meetings, Cain advised, "Give yourself a chance to speak up early. Figure out early what you want to say, and then give yourself that push. The people who speak up early become a central part of the discussion." Likewise, she added, "When you're feeling enthusiastic or your team has done something great, give yourselves a push to express that enthusiasm in a way that might not come naturally to you."
  • Extroverts, do the same — but in different ways."Become aware of how much you're talking in meetings and try to tone it down so you make sure everybody is getting in there," Cain suggested. She alluded to Cheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, who actually hired a coach to help her learn not to speak so much. Also, if you're leading the meeting, let everybody "know in advance what you want to talk about," in order to give the introverts time to "think and process." The result: "I think you'll find you get much better data that way."
  • Once you've stretched yourself, give yourself a break."If you have a whole morning of meetings to get something done," Cain suggested, "schedule a lunch meeting just with yourself and honor that commitment to yourself." That goes for extroverts too, she said. "You sometimes have to sit down in a locked room to get something done. We should be stepping outside of our comfort zone in service of our core personal projects — to advance work or relationships we care about."
  • Reconsider your notions of leadership. As business consultant Jim Collins laid out in his book Good to Great, it's the "quiet, unassuming, modest and shy" individual who turns out to be able to create great and lasting companies, Cain noted. "This is the exact opposite constellation of qualities we expect to find in our leaders. It's not that surprising. Introverts by their nature want to dive deep into the topics they [care about]. Some introverts are motivated by becoming a leader for its own sake. In service of those passion areas they'll end up building those networks — and it ends up becoming incredibly impactful." Therefore, she proposed, managers need to consider who might be the "unlikely" leaders in their teams for grooming. "How could you work with that person to help them draw out their best talents, to step outside of their comfort zones in ways they need to do? Sit down and have a meeting. 'Where do you want to be in three years, five years? How can I help you get there?'"

As Cain reminded the audience, "The small tweaks we make can go a long way. We often think there's one style or pathway — It's not true. It's much more a matter of drawing on our strengths and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones when we need to."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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