Monday, August 24, 2015

Valuing Introverts

Over two years ago, the folks over at the athenahealth kindly invited me to submit columns to their Health Leadership Forum, and I have done so on an occasional basis since them. As I recently reviewed the columns, I realized that my own thoughts on the topics of leadership and coaching have evolved a bit, and I thought my readers over here at Not Running A Hospital might enjoy witnessing the transition. So for several days, I will be reprinting the posts from the Forum over here. Comments are welcome at the original site and here. Today's reprint, with some small additions, is from a post dated March 24, 2015, "Valuing Introverts."

The Wharton School’s Adam Grant has noted: “If you look at existing leadership research, extroversion stands out as the most consistent and robust predictor of who becomes a leader and who is rated an effective leader.” Writer and introvert-activist Susan Cain has also pointed out that introverts are often passed over for leadership positions.

While there are notable exceptions, I think that these observers tend to be correct. I’m not saying things should be this way, but they often are.

If you are one of those extroverted leaders, you have probably created a corporate environment that is comfortable to you and other extroverts. Cain notes the pervasiveness of this phenomenon, saying, “We have this belief system right now that holds that all creativity and all productivity comes from an oddly gregarious place. Our most important institutions are designed for extroverts and their need for lots of stimulation.”

Given that one-half to one-third of people tend toward introversion, the lack of work environment that introverts would find comfortable is deeply troubling. As a leader, though, you have a more serious problem: Those introverts often have the most helpful insights about thorny problems or often could say something that could keep you from making a really bad decision.

Indeed, your team is much more likely to suffer from groupthink if introverts don’t feel empowered.  They will remain silent while the rest of the group adopts the opinion of the most dominant people in the group.  Your team will likely suffer from confirmation bias, the tendency to be anchored by the dominant view and find evidence that supports this preconceived notion, ignoring that which doesn’t.  In short, if you have created a work environment that denies introverts the opportunity to participate on their terms, you lose a potential treasure trove of useful input.

I came to notice this—often too late–during my leadership experience in several settings of government, the private sector, and health care.  Like many of you, I had been trained to believe that group work would be the most productive and creative way to scope out problems and identify solutions.  Task forces, white boards, and group facilitators were the standard package for solving problems at the organizations that I led.

But privacy and autonomy can be very useful catalysts for innovation too.  “Solitude is a crucial ingredient to creativity,” Cain argues. “For some people, it is the air that they breathe.”  Einstein, (above), is quoted as having said, "The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind."

If you wish to avoid groupthink, it may be better to allow your staff to go out and work alone for some portion of a problem-solving exercise.  There, they can be free from the distortion of group dynamics.

I understand that this cannot be the sole method of problem-solving.  After all, you need to build a coalition of the entire team to have a successful implementation—and you certainly want to hear critiques of a plan from all affected divisions in the organization. But you need a strategy to engage introverts beyond task forces, group discussions and other highly social settings.

Another way to engage introverts is to channel introvert characteristics in your own behavior.  Grant writes, “We tend to assume that we need to be extremely enthusiastic, outgoing and assertive, and we try to bring employees on board with a lot of excitement, a clear vision and direction, but there is real value in a leader being more reserved, quieter, in some cases silent, in order to create space for employees to enter the dialogue.”

Grant relates the story of the CEO of one Fortune 500 company who has a policy of silence for the first 15 minutes of meetings. He did not utter a single word, although he is an extrovert. Grant explains, “He feels that he has a tendency, once he gets excited about ideas, to run with them to the point where, at times, it leaves employees feeling like they weren’t included. So he tries to combat that: ‘I want you guys to tell me whatever you’re thinking about — suggestions, feedback, questions — and the floor is yours.’ He listens quietly and takes notes.”

But one executive’s mindful silence is not enough. You’ll need to make sure that other extroverts in the room do not dominate. I recall meetings in which our chief of surgery (no surprise!) would sometimes try to assert control over a discussion of our hospital’s Chiefs Council.  We needed to make explicit time for, and request comments from, the less outspoken chiefs of other departments. Luckily, the chair of the Council, our chief of psychiatry, was a master of calm and could help assure participation by all.

Cain offers a bit of sage advice to us extroverts, one that is especially important for leaders: “Have the courage to speak softly.  While Western culture favors the man of action over the man of contemplation, give introverts the freedom to come up with their ideas.”


Barry Carol said...

I can really relate to this one personally. At my last employer, we had a very collegial culture but most of our time was actually spent working alone which I really liked. We had one staff meeting each week where we brought each other up to date. We often exchanged investment ideas informally including over lunch.

While I wasn’t afraid to speak up during the staff meetings, for more controversial subjects and opposing viewpoints, I preferred to address them in the form of a concise private memo to our Fund’s president. Actually, almost all of us, including the president himself, were introverted personalities. It worked well for me and our little subsidiary had a pretty successful long term record.

Unknown said...

I recall doing a Myers Briggs group exercise with over 100 people composed of fundraisers, program administrators and communications staff. We lined up by the level of our scores on all four measures and then in total. The oddity - even to we communicators - was that the "PR people" all fell at the very extreme level of introvert. Why was this? The facilitator smiled and said, "Isn't that something? You see? They think before they speak. You should learn to listen more...they really have the best things to say." In praise of the contributions made to the process of introverts! Group leaders should recognize that it's the quiet ones who are thinking most deeply...

Paul Levy said...

Thank you both.