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February 16, 2012

Staff Picks: A (Quiet) Room of One's Own

By: Sally Haldorson @ 7:12 PM – Filed under: Leadership & Strategy, Management & Workplace Culture, Personal Development & Human Behavior

In a 1929 essay, Virginia Woolf wrote that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." There has been much literary analysis (and some criticism) of this assertion, and, over time it seems her call has been taken up by proponents of nearly every minority facing systemic repression, but in the context of the time, Woolf was being quite literal and pragmatic. Women rarely had space to call their own in which to do their own work. Women belonged to the household, not to themselves. While I feel a little bit guilty for cribbing Woolf's famous line for the title of this post--partially because it's overused, and partially because this is a somewhat lighter topic to which I am applying it--, as I read through Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, the phrase came leaping to mind and stayed there. There are a lot of angles to come at Quiet, but I think the practical, in terms of space, is a good place to start. Cain's book sets out to show us how and why 'the extrovert' has become the American ideal, and for our purposes, particularly in the workplace. She argues that introverts--nearly 1/3 of people-- are misunderstood and devalued. In an interview on NPR.org, Cain explains:

"Many people believe that introversion is about being antisocial, and that's really a misperception. Because actually it's just that introverts are differently social. So they would prefer to have a glass of wine with a close friend as opposed to going to a loud party full of strangers.

While able to make choices that suit them in their personal lives (no one has to go to a rock concert to hear their favorite music performed live thanks to the Internet), introverts are often forced to work in an environment that doesn't suit their creative and productivity needs. This can mean that introverts are less likely to perform to the top of their potential. Also from the NPR Q&A:

It's quite a problem in the workplace today, because we have a workplace that is increasingly set up for maximum group interaction. More and more of our offices are set up as open-plan offices where there are no walls and there's very little privacy. ... The average amount of space per employee actually shrunk from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet today.

Our offices at 800-CEO-READ exemplify this in microcosm. The majority of us work just a few yards away from another person with no doors, walls, or windows dividing us. Discussions quickly become group discussion, interdepartmental, no matter the topic, which is a great way to stay on top of vital information and everyone's mood. But occasionally we have create our own "walls" by putting on a pair of headphones and listening to whatever music that keeps us focused and tuned inward. It's a way of us saying, non-verbally, "Not now. I need some space." Workplace dynamics aside, another danger, Cain says in her chapter "The Myth of Charismatic Leadership" , is that when work only happens in an open office environment, or in team situations, introverts are often unable to share their valuable contributions simply because they habitually think before they talk. And, well, extroverts, are much more used to talking as they think.

If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day. This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones get squashed.....We perceive talkers as smarter than quiet types--even though grade point averages and SAT and intelligence test scores reveal this perception to be inaccurate.

Cain expounds on what is lost when this myth of the charismatic leader persists in her NPR Q&A:

Introverts are much less often groomed for leadership positions, even though there's really fascinating research out recently from Adam Grant at [The Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania] finding that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes when their employees are more proactive. They're more likely to let those employees run with their ideas, whereas an extroverted leader might, almost unwittingly, be more dominant and be putting their own stamp on things, and so those good ideas never come to the fore.

Cain isn't making a call for everyone to work behind their own closed door with no interaction with their fellow workers. And her "criticism in the book is not of extroverts at all, but rather of the extrovert ideal." Quiet is instead a call for equal opportunity for every type of worker, in the same vein that Woolf called for all women and men to have the space in which to do their best creative work.

None of this is to say that it would be a good thing to get rid of teamwork and get rid of group work altogether. It's more just to say that we're at a point in our culture, and in our workplace culture, where we've gotten too lopsided. We tend to believe that all creativity and all productivity comes from the group, when in fact, there really is a benefit to solitude and to being able to go off and focus and put your head down.

In the Introduction to Quiet Cain includes a brief questionnaire of 20 True/False questions to help readers determine their level of introversion. I took the quiz and not-surprisingly to me, answered True to 17 of the 20 questions, marking me a true introvert. Of course I've known this most of my life ever since I took my first Myers-Briggs in college (INTJ, for anyone who is curious) to more recently when I reveled in a weekend day at home during which I sat in the quiet (no tv, no radio, no husband, no child) for 6 hours. Some of my affirmative answers were to the questions: "I often prefer to express myself in writing"; "I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities"; "I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter to me"; "I often let calls go through to voice mail." Before reading Quiet, I'd been lately questioning whether my introversion is a weakness. At times I joke about being a misanthrope, but truly I wish public events and cold calls didn't give me hives. We certainly get enough books passing through the office that talk about how networking is a prime essential for advancement in business. But I'm certainly not alone in my introversion and can take comfort in the fact that success is not dependent on me adapting some new personality. There are any number of deeply successful introverts as history shows. Cain showcases a few in this book trailer: Cain also proffers examples of introverts who have become successful in realms atypical to the typical introvert. She emphasizes that sometimes the work you choose to do means needing to get out of your own way. She speaks passionately in her book's conclusion titled "Wonderland":

Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it. If this requires public speaking or networking or other activities that make you uncomfortable, do them anyway. But accept that they're difficult, get the training you need to make them easier, and reward yourself when your done.

The book offers examples of ways to transcend our intrinsic personality types in order to be better communicators and more assertive team members when the situation calls for it. Learn how you may respond, as an extrovert, during competitive vs cooperative games. Learn how the introvert might adjust her tendencies towards distancing herself via a quiet state during a heated conversation. Throughout the book, Cain isn't making these observations and assertions without support. Quiet is well-researched and references contemporary neuroscience, psychological research studies, and popular business literature to provide the answers to her own questions regarding her introverted personality. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, you will learn plenty about yourself, how you communicate, and how you work--whether you need that quiet room for yourself or not--by reading Quiet.


About Sally Haldorson


Sally Haldorson's job as 800-CEO-READ’s General Manager is to make 800-CEO-READ a great place to work for our employees, and a consistently high-performing customer service organization for our clients, authors, and our partners in the publishing industry. In addition to her General Manager duties ensuring collaboration, integration, and quality, she reads, writes, reviews, curates, and edits for the company. Helping craft The 100 Best Business Books of All Time used parts of both skill sets. Outside of work, she is most likely to be found hitting a tennis ball around or hanging out with her boys (husband, child, dog) at home.