A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing: Susan Cain on the Power of Introversion
Susan Cain grew up a thoughtful, reflective person in a society that exalts the “Culture of Personality.” She always felt a sense of friction she couldn’t quite identify. Yet she succeeded in the extrovert’s world despite that friction, graduating from Princeton University and Harvard Law School and building a career as a Wall Street attorney. But in 2005, she decided it just wasn’t worth it. That friction — her introversion — was still there, and she needed to understand it.
So she embarked on an ambitious project researching and writing about this “thing” that defines between one in two and one in three of us. She discovered along the way that introversion has physiological markers that date back to infancy and that introverts offer important contributions to leadership, creativity, and innovation — when their needs are understood and respected.
Cain’s seven years of research and writing yielded one of the most important social studies of the 21st century and has had a profound influence on how we view temperament. Her acclaimed book, Quiet, became a New York Times bestseller and her TED Talk on “The Power of Introverts,” one of the most watched in the series, with more than 23 million views and counting. Her training as a sheep in wolf’s clothing helped her reinvent herself (again) as an acclaimed researcher, author, speaker, and now “Quiet Revolutionary.”
CFA Society Vancouver hosted Cain in May 2019, and I was pleased to interview her ahead of that appearance. Our discussion follows, edited for length and clarity.
Mike Wallberg, CFA: What is the Quiet Revolution?
Susan Cain: The Quiet Revolution is basically a movement of people all over the world who are committed to harnessing the talents of introverts in schools, workplaces, and society in general.
This was kicked off by your book Quiet. What was your motivation in writing it?
This was something I’d been thinking about since I was a little kid. The motivation was that I looked around and saw that we lived in a global culture that contained this massive contradiction. On one hand, I saw introverts contributing to society in ways that were because of — and not in spite of — their quiet and careful temperament. On the other hand, we have this global culture that tells everybody that they’re supposed to be bold, non-deliberate extroverts. But the truth is we really need both kinds. We need both kinds understanding each other. We need each type of person to sometimes adopt the skills of the other type. But what we’re living with right now is a lopsided culture that would benefit from a more balanced approach. So that’s why I wrote it.
I looked around and I saw so many introverts living with a lot of unnecessary psychic pain, of feeling “not okay” with being the way they were, not comfortable with their own preference of how they wish to spend their time. That seemed like a huge waste of energy, talent, and happiness.
What impacts do you think the book has had on people’s attitudes toward introversion? Are there any stories that stay with you about how Quiet has changed people’s lives?
There are a lot of them. I’ve been amazed by how receptive business culture has been to this concept, so I’ve been brought in to speak and consult with all different kinds of companies all over the world. People who have been at the top echelons of these companies — they really get it that a third to a half of their workforce are introverts and they’re probably not doing as much as they could. Now when people talk about diversity and inclusion efforts, increasingly introversion is high on that list.
I saw this at Harvard Business School. A professor there told me that when she taught in her classes about personality type, she would have the students take assessments to understand their own type. She said it used to be that she apparently had classes that were composed of 100% extroverts. Nobody wanted to admit being an introvert. In recent years, that’s completely changed. Now half the class are avowed introverts, and that’s because it’s become culturally more acceptable, or somewhere between acceptable and admired.
Since, in your book, Harvard was one of the settings that exemplified the cult of personality, where success was reserved only for the extroverted, that is particularly remarkable.
That’s true. For that shift to have taken place in that particular subculture is, I think, all the more revealing.
I’m curious about your corporate engagements. What do folks want you to talk about? How do you engage with them?
There are all different types of companies. In particular, I hear a lot from pharma companies, finance companies, and companies that have large staffs who are creative because so many creative people tend to be introverts. All these companies are realizing that their valuable staff members are usually introverted and that they’re asked to function with very extroverted norms. So when it comes time for performance reviews, for example, people are evaluated based on how forcefully they speak up in meetings or how effective they are at self-promotion. It’s not that these things aren’t important, but those are the qualities that are emphasized. The qualities that introverts might be bringing are less noted. I think companies are really starting to understand that and they’re asking for help.
I don’t think I’ve ever, ever worked with a company that didn’t express the following concern: “We know that our people have good ideas, but when we get into a meeting, we’re only hearing from a few of them. How do we get that information out there? How do we create an environment where introverts are more likely to share what they know and make everybody more engaged?” So companies bring me in to give talks to their workforces or their leadership teams.
In your book, you talk about online idea generation. What do you recommend companies do to aid in idea generation?
One of my favorite techniques comes from the world of education. It’s called Think-Pair-Share. The idea is you’re in a meeting and you have a question to think through. Instead of opening it up to the floor and having a free-for-all where everybody jockeys for position, you organize people into pairs and have them discuss the problem within their pairs. This gets everybody to think more deeply and helps the more reticent articulate their ideas in a quieter, more one-on-one way. You then invite the pairs to share with the group. Each member of the pairs shares their partner’s point of view in reference to their own. All these things act as nature’s lubricant for getting ideas out that otherwise would’ve been there but might not have been expressed.
You quoted Peter Drucker, who said that in all of his research, none of the best CEOs were charismatic or cared much about charisma. This struck me because as an equity analyst, I’d meet four CEOs a week and probably 99% at least pretended to be extroverted. They were often the tallest and loudest people in the room and had the strongest handshake. But if I had to name the three to five most effective value creators I dealt with, they were the quieter, thoughtful ones who listened to your questions and reflected.
Isn’t that such an interesting thing? There was actually a study of an investment bank in London that found that the most effective traders tended to be introverts. I found this really compelling because there’s all this data that shows that introverts take a more careful and deliberate approach to decision making. That often gets read as introverts won’t do the bold thing when it’s necessary. It is true that introverts are more, “look before you leap” types, but that doesn’t mean they won’t make a move. It just means they deliberate before making the move, and that can be really useful. We really need both ways of being.
Exactly, and it’s interesting that they can be effective because the stereotype of the trader is that they have to act quickly, in addition to being bold. But even with the extra time introverts spend deliberating, they’re still making better decisions rather than a series of bad ones.
Your work on the value of introverted leaders — that the introverted personality type can better lead more proactive people because they listen to and incorporate others’ ideas into their decision making — was compelling. Can this create something of a virtuous cycle? Does research suggest that introducing an introverted leader into a passive workplace creates proactivity among employees when they feel like they’re being heard?
Oh, that’s interesting. That particular set of studies came from Adam Grant at the Wharton School. He found that extroverted leaders delivered somewhat better results with non-proactive employees. In a situation where you need internal force to come in and rally people and inspire them, extroverts tend to be better. With all this stuff, it’s not like extroverts can’t do what introverts do well, and vice versa. We all take on roles when we need to. It’s just certain ways of being come more naturally.
You talk in the book about the credit crisis of 2008 and how personality type played a role. What was it that you found?
During the years leading up to 2008, we were living in a financial culture that lionized the people who “go for it.” Anybody who expressed concerns about risks was marginalized. A great example of this was Enron in 2001. Someone internally kept trying to sound the alarm on these various transactions that Enron was getting into, but would continually be shouted down by the aggressive trader types. The situation was described as: On one side of the table, you had an aggressive rainmaker, and on the other, an introverted nerd. Who do you think won? But if that person and others like them had been listened to, then the situations with Enron and later with 2008 might have unfolded really differently.
The psychological studies around this stuff find that if you give trading- and gambling-type scenarios to introverts and extroverts, the extroverts tend to have more risk-taking, more impulsive reactions. They are much more likely to be focused on the potential rewards as their brains are more oriented to them and so literally don’t see as much of the potential warning signs, even when the warning signs are there.
If the liability for extroverts is that they’re not seeing the warning signs, the liability for introverts is that they tend to see the warning signs, perhaps too much. That’s why I always go back to saying, “My God, we really need both of them in any type of situation.” But, when you combine the culture that I just described with the fact that the type of person who was consistently rewarded was the one who is neurobiologically predisposed not to see warning signs and instead be focused on the shiny reward — that’s when you get into trouble.
How can introverted equity analysts apply this research?
I think one place they could really start is with self-awareness. I know you were asking more about introverts, but I’m going to start with extroverts. If you are an extroverted equity analyst, if it rings true to you what I’m describing, that you are somebody who tends to orient to rewards and to the prospect of the shiny prize, if you know that about yourself, be aware of that bias and recognize that you need to have people around you who will remind you of what the potential downsides are. Is this the opposite of what you were asking?
Not at all. It’s just answering it from the other direction — which is to say, be aware of your own blind spots and your own risk. If you’re required to think clearly about both risk and reward and you are predisposed to addictive personality-type responses, then be aware of it. That’s what I’m taking away from your comment.
Let’s pivot to Susan Cain the introvert. What is a “free trait agreement” and what are the elements of yours?
A free trait agreement acknowledges that we all have our preferred ways of being, but we all sometimes need to act out of character for the sake of a project that matters to us. This comes from the work of the Canadian psychologist and professor Brian Little. A free trait agreement acknowledges that not only are we doing this, but our colleagues are as well, and we should accommodate each other and understand, “Okay, my extroverted colleague over there is being really quiet for three hours, so that I can have the pleasure of focusing in silence. So now let me reward that person by going out for coffee with them.” So it’s accommodating each other.
You can make a free trait agreement with yourself, which I do all the time. For example, I’m on a plane right now to give a talk in Charlotte, North Carolina, and then to Vancouver on Sunday for two more talks. So that’s all pretty out there. But I always make sure to have plenty of down time built in to these speaking trips where I can be on my own and enjoy it. I love going back to the hotel for a drink and a talk. And I really honor those. I’ll turn down invitations that seem really fun to make sure I have my down time because I know how much I need it.
Your readers will recall the image of you struggling with the expectations to be extroverted early in your life. You attended camp and were encouraged to shout slogans rather than read your trove of books. If you could go back and talk to the young Susan Cain sitting on her bunk, what would you tell her?
I would just say that for all those millions of times that you’re going to ask yourself whether your own preference of hanging out and reading or hanging out with 1 friend as opposed to 17 at a time, for all those times that you sat thinking there was something a little bit wrong with you for those preferences: Just forget that. Half the people in the world feel the same way. They’re just not saying so, and there’s a lot of benefit to that way of being.
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6 thoughts on “A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing: Susan Cain on the Power of Introversion”
“During the years leading up to 2008, we were living in a financial culture that lionized the people who “go for it.”
I enjoyed reading and liked the format in which you laid out your perspective on introverts and extroverts. It was very enlightening and I can definitely relate to it. Thank you and look forward to reading your book ‘Quiet’.
What a brilliant interview and what a fantastic personality being interviewed. The whole message received from this interview absolutely resonates with me. I have read the book, Quiet, a few years ago and learned a lot from it. This reminds me of those years of loneliness, frustration, and pressure trying to do my school presentations in another language in front of the school dean, president, professors and hundreds of students! I felt like I was on the wrong road until I read that remarkable book which positively shifted my negative thoughts of being an introvert into a positive one. Thank you so much, Susan. Thank you, Mike and CFA Institute.
I’m glad you enjoyed it, Siamand and Robin. It was a real privilege to spend time with Susan and be able to hear (and tell) her story.
Hi Mike, this was a wonderful article. Back in 2012 our local paper ran a story about introverts. Up until then I wasn’t sure why I didn’t fit in with those around me. I was a good salesman and did very well for myself in the same job for 33 years which I retired from in 2016. Since retiring I have been studying introversion more. I have sought to educate people about introversion in various meetings and group sessions. Having said that, I believe this article is copyrighted; how do I get permission to use this article to share with my groups? Thank you, Lynn
Many thanks, Lynn. I think Susan’s book resonated with a lot of people in the same way, myself included.
The Institute holds the copyright on the story – best to reach out to the editors via https://blogs.cfainstitute.org/investor/about-us/. Best of luck!