Susan Cain

(Reviewed by John Cowan)

If you are an extrovert, and the odds are that you are, you can learn a lot about those frustrating people in the midst of extroverts called introverts and the deep reasons they will never really change despite the fact you repeatedly invite them to the party and they repeatedly do not come or, if they do, quickly volunteer to help in the kitchen. If you have a caterer in the kitchen, she or he will know them deeply and be known by them deeply by the close of the party. Want to understand your introvert. Ask the caterer. Want to understand your caterer? …

If you think you are an extrovert but find the job exhausting, you may learn that your problem is that you are really an introvert. The experts guess that the population is really about half and half, but in an extroverted culture a fair percentage of the introvert half feels obligated to pretend they are extroverts. Oh the relief you are about to feel! Just by understanding it!

If you are, as I am, a dyed in the wool introvert, you will feel the deep pleasure of finding you and your soul mates lauded as the magnificent beings we really are, instead of the curmudgeons we are often painted to be.  When I worked with teams as a consultant I would often gently suggest to the majority instead of becoming irritated with the guy or gal in the corner who suggests the correct answer to replace the putative correct answer ten minutes after a new subject has been introduced they should be delighted that he came to the correct answer and gave it to them.

At the same time, I would give a mini-lecture on the value of introverts. In summary, the introvert will sweep up what the extroverts miss because in their haste to yak-yak they have slid by it, and the introverts slow moving antenna has caught the signal, on her own, and while they chattered she filled in all the blanks and now that you have stopped for breath, voila, she provides what you once needed. Thank her. Do not ask her to work faster. Work faster is what you do. Just thank her.

This I know well because I am one of her. I picked for my trade, Organization Development where the great skill is to listen sometimes for days to the voices of the group and then pull the major issues and put them on the table for deeper discussion. Right up my alley. For instance after a day with an executive team in the boss’s office, I asked why the phone rang so seldom. (1980 when phones rang in executive offices and secretaries answered in the other room.) No big genius deal. Just after sitting there a couple of hours I would suppose it would have rung more than twice. The question had been in the back of my mind begging to be asked for some time.

That idle question led us to the deepest problem the team faced. The boss was out of the loop. That is why his phone did not ring. He was an introvert and getting out of loops is an introvert’s type of difficulty. 

Three months later as this same boss and I were heading into a teambuilding off-site he tells me he had just received a memo from headquarters a thousand miles away with a list of ten major projects he had to accomplish in the next six months or he would be fired.

He was very fireable.  That’s how I got my job. Headquarters six months before had told him they did not know what the problem was but he had to be fixed and I was hired by him as his fixer.

So I suggested we forget the agenda and start the meeting with him telling the guys (no women, hey, that was then) the contents of the letter. And he saying that no these were his problems to solve not theirs. So before we began I with his permission raised the topic of the letter and asked if they would like to hear it. “Sure,” they said in a bored tone. So he talked about the letter. At the end, I asked for comment. Again quite bored they said that headquarters is always sending stuff like this and if he accomplishes a couple of these they will never follow-up on the rest anyway. So I asked, “Did you notice that they said if he did not do this in six months he will be fired?”

“Fired!  He never said he would be fired!” (Well, technically he had, but so indirectly that I who was waiting for it barely caught it.)

The gang began dividing up the work, tore into it and in four months everything was accomplished and a report mailed to headquarters. Introverts are not big on sharing, even critical problems for which they need help. Even with people who need to help them to protect their own jobs.

In spite of this success corporate management fired him anyway. Headquarters was not run by dummies.  Headquarters knew that getting this guy not to be totally introverted was not going to happen, at least not in the time frame they envisioned. The best they probably would ever do is to get him to act like an extrovert. “It is ten o’clock and I will now do what my calendar says and go talk to five people in another building. Any five.” This is a practice many introverts need to pick up for their own safety says Ann Cain.

This guy, who I think one of the best of men got another good job with the company where digging deep into one problem was the pattern with minimal outside assistance needed. They hired someone for his chair who liked to get out of the office and talked to anyone he could find about how the work was going. His phone rang constantly and when he returned from his excursions many requests for a return call waited on his desk. He even kept me on to talk to about those he was talking to.

This reminds me of another client whose team asked him to stop discussing problems with employees while eating lunch with them. They would find the employee going a direction, (software people here) that they had told her not to go. The employee’s excuse? Over lunch Sheldon, the flaming extrovert, had told her, nay proven to her, the direction she had been given was a bad idea. So Sheldon defends himself to his team saying that this was not an official head of the division pronouncement, just a pleasant chat among friends, and his team gave him a quick lecture on what “general manager” means to the average programmer, even at lunch.  (Something like God, but not quite.)

Sheldon could never prevent himself from trying to help by solving problems. But he did learn to insist that the receiver of his idea present it as his own idea if he really bought it, one he had after conversation with Sheldon, and then wait dutifully for what his own boss wanted him to do. Not necessarily what Sheldon wanted. But he knew he wasn’t God.

Susan Cain will have literally more than a hundred examples and hundreds of explanations of the ins and outs of introversion and related matters, stories like these and statistics to boot.  The book is fun to read. Well, certainly fun for an introvert. It can be fun for an extrovert. And for an introvert who does not know that he or she is an introvert, this could be pretty exciting!.


Post  Script: I loved Sheldon. My years in business introduced me to many really great people and Sheldon was one of them.  I stopped by his office about six at night and there sat Sheldon with a cup of coffee and a huge map paper with myriad lines with arrows. “What you working on,” I said. “Software?”

“Nope,” he replied, “the golf course watering system. I am on the board and their engineer asked me to see if it made sense.” I said, “What do you know about water in pipes?” He said, “It’s pretty much the same as information on a wire.”

I should have told him, but maybe I did not know it then, a Zen story of an old monk who was an expert on selecting horses. The local king called him in and asked him to select for him a white stallion, perfect in every way. The old man demurred, saying age was slowing his energy and this would mean kicking around the kingdom too much for him but he had a young monk who was even better at this than he was. So the King settled for the young monk to search for a white stallion, perfect in every way.

Two months later the horse arrived. The king was horrified. It was a grey mare. He called the old man in and complained about the selection. The old man said, “I told you that kid is already beyond me in comprehension of horses. He can see a white stallion where I only would have seen a grey mare. The king in frustration accepted the grey mare.  The first time he rode her he realized she was, perfect in every way.

And that is why I loved Sheldon, he could see stallions where others saw grey mares.  I was on a project for him, developing an orientation course. He saw me in the hallway and asked, “How is my sales brochure coming?” I said, “You’re confused, I’m working on an orientation course.” “No, I know that. The possibility of taking that course is going to pull in lots of young programmers looking for a company that will give them a good start instead of dropping them in the deep end of the pool.  Your course is the topic of my brochure. ”

This last since the “*****” has nothing to do with introversion, or even extroversion for that matter. Sometimes my love just spills over. I had to tell you about Sheldon. He died sometime after I left Control Data. They shut the division down for the afternoon of his burial. Turned the cafeteria into a cathedral.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  That’s what I say!