Susan Cain, the World’s Leading Introvert Expert, On How to Thrive in an Open-office World
The modern workplace is designed for extroverts–but introverts can make it work for them.
If you are an introvert, you may sometimes feel as if the world is conspiring against you. In the workplace, you are correct, according to Susan Cain, author of the best-selling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
A bias toward extroversion informs every aspect of contemporary work culture, Cain says. Open-office plans invite a steady hum of chatter and regular interruptions. Meetings can easily eat up the better part of a day. And in an effort to be perceived as “team players,” many introverts feel pressure to make themselves constantly available—whether for impromptu brainstorming sessions or swapping Game of Thrones theories.
“The way that many people, and introverts in particular, like to get work done is by focusing for chunks of time and getting into a psychological state called flow,” Cain says. “The workplace does not allow anyone to get into that state.”
Cain is out to change that. As the founder of the Quiet Leadership Institute, Cain has been helping organizations including GE, Proctor & Gamble and NASA create work environments that benefit outgoing and soft-spoken types alike. If your company is still lagging behind the curve, here’s some advice from Cain on navigating some common office obstacles.
Thriving in an open office
Find pockets of solitude
“I would say that to the extent that your office culture allows it, go to a nearby coffee shop or a quieter room,” Cain says. She also advises both extroverts and introverts to take breaks throughout the day that will give them time to think. “Many people feel guilty doing that and are worried they’ll be perceived as being a slacker,” she says. “But a 15-minute walk around the block can make you a lot more present in your job.”
Several of my colleagues say they also try to space out meetings and phone calls so they’re not bouncing straight from one interaction to the next. After all, lots of introverts enjoy social time—they just need to give themselves a break in order to reenergize. Scheduling all of your meetings in the morning to leave the afternoons clear, for example, can do a world of good.
Invest in a good pair of headphones
If you can’t get away from your desk, Cain notes that headphones are “a widely accepted signal that you’re focusing.” A few coworkers say they’re partial to over-the-ear, noise-canceling headphones such as the Bose QuietComfort 15.
Lean into Slack
Critics of instant-messaging apps like Slack and Gchat worry that employees spend more time trading gossip and baby-goat GIFs than engaging in productive online conversations. But Cain says that remote technologies are a major boon for introverts, many of whom feel most comfortable participating in conversations when they have time to think before they speak (or type, as the case may be).
“I think remote technologies are great that way,” Cain says. “They have a way of leveling the playing field so that everyone feels equally comfortable participating in Slack discussions.”
The art of the meeting
In a typical six- to eight-person meeting, three people are doing 70% of the talking, according to research from the Kellogg School of Management. But the loudest people don’t necessarily have the best ideas.
In her work with the Quiet Leadership Institute, Cain advises companies to use techniques like going around the room and making sure all people present have a chance to speak. “Asking everyone to write down their thoughts on paper, and then discuss them at the meeting, is [another] way to make sure everybody’s ideas are out there,” she says.
For introverts whose companies are sticking with traditional free-for-all meeting formats, Cain offers two big suggestions:
Pipe up early
“First, think in advance about what you’re going to want to contribute at the meeting,” Cain says. “Give yourself a push to speak up early. The ideas that are advanced the earliest have an anchoring effect on the discussion. And the people who contribute early become the emotional anchors in the room, with people directing their attention to you.”
Believe what you say
“Second, make sure you’re always speaking from an emotional place of conviction,” Cain adds. “It doesn’t matter how soft-spoken you are if your underlying conviction makes itself felt.”
Even people who might normally hesitate to express strong opinions can teach themselves to channel their inner talk-show pundit, Cain says. “This is a muscle you can exercise like any other—you can ask yourself, ‘What was my opinion about this movie I saw and how would I describe my feelings about it?’”
Don’t sweat the interview
As companies increasingly emphasize cultural fit in their recruitment efforts, some introverts I spoke with wondered how they could communicate their enthusiasm to interviewers looking for high-energy candidates. Cain’s answer: Don’t sweat it.
“The right employer shouldn’t have trouble distinguishing your quiet way of communicating your engagement,” she says. “You still have a responsibility to make sure you’re communicating your enthusiasm about the company’s vision. But you should be able to say that in your own, natural way.”
If a hiring manager does decide to pass on a candidate who prefers low-key evenings at home to karaoke and keg stands, that’s probably best for everyone involved.
“For introverts, do your own analysis of whether this is a culture where your temperament will thrive,” Cain says. “Some places do place a huge premium on socializing throughout the workday and going out with coworkers at night. If that’s really not what you want to be doing, that’s going to be a constant strain.”