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Introverts Get Their Time in the Spotlight

It’s not easy being an introvert in an extroverted world. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says that the rise of the Industrial Age in the United States has created a “culture of personality” where people are obsessed with celebrities and performers. Cain, a self-proclaimed introvert, argues that “there’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

Introversion is not the same thing as shyness, although some introverts can also be shy. Cain says whether someone is an introvert or extrovert is characterized by how that person responds to stimulation. Extroverts crave a lot of stimulation whereas introverts feel best when they’re in quieter and more low-key environments. Psychologist Jerome Kagan discovered that introversion and extroversion could be tied to a person’s physiology. Introverts have amygdalas that respond more strongly to new stimulation, which can cause their circuits to feel overloaded and extroverts are the opposite—seeking out stimulation in an effort to raise their dopamine levels.

Cain cautions that there’s no such thing as a pure introvert or pure extrovert, and that we all fall at different points along the spectrum. People who fall right in the middle, with equal introvert and extrovert tendencies, are called “ambiverts.”

So how does this relate to the workplace? Cain says that if you’re a manager, keep in mind that one-third to one-half of your workforce is probably introverted. “Don’t expect introverts to get jazzed up about open office plans or a team-building retreat,” she says. Introvert’s strengths are their ability to think deeply and solve complex problems. Extroverts are better at multi-tasking and handling information overload. The most effective teams at work would have a combination of both types.

Cain is on a mission to put an end to the “madness of constant group work.” She stresses allowing people to think creatively on their own before bringing the entire group together to brainstorm. “Group brainstorming doesn’t work,” she says. “After 40 years of research we’ve found that performance gets worse as group size increases.” One exception to this is brainstorming online, where there’s less likelihood for conformity pressure.

Most workplaces are typically designed for extroverts, especially the newer open floor plans. In a July podcast for Harvard Business Review, Cain criticized these open floor plans, saying they’re detrimental to productivity and emotional health. “It’s a paradox because it’s more difficult to get close with colleagues in the more open offices. True connections require a level of privacy and intimacy,” she says.

In addition to her book tour, Cain has been consulting with schools and workplaces on this issue and is considering developing a social network for introverts. She will be speaking at Elliott Masie’s Learning Conference Oct. 21-24 in Orlando, Fla.