Innovation Hub: Introverts as Innovators

Entrepreneurs, bosses, and leaders are often highly social and extroverted—take Steve Jobs or Richard Branson. They can work a room. They derive energy from being around others.

But what if being outgoing and extroverted isn’t actually the key to success in the workplace? Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, believes that innovation and introversion go together better than you might think.

[This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full conversation, visit www.innovationhub.org]

Kara Miller: Many innovators you hear about are larger-than-life characters. Are there introverted people in the shadows who are also part of the innovation process?

Susan Cain: In some ways, you almost can’t find a great innovation process without finding shy people who are a part of it. For example, the first personal computer was invented not by Steve Jobs, but by his partner Steve Wozniak, a very shy, introverted guy. Often, in these origin stories, we tend not to focus much on the contributions of the people who, by their nature, don’t really want us to focus on them.

KM: Is there a danger when these “silent partners” don’t end up with a major role in the history books?

SC: The real downside is that, when it comes time to dream up the next innovation, we don’t think about creating teams and processes that include shy, quiet members, or that effectively draw on the talents of the people who want to go off by themselves to do their work. A lot of people get to do their best work when they go off by themselves.

KM: What does the research show about the benefits of brainstorming versus sitting alone and coming up with something by yourself?

SC: We tend to think that collaboration only means sitting in a group of people bouncing around ideas. Over forty years of research on brainstorming shows that individuals who brainstorm by themselves produce more and better ideas than groups of people who brainstorm together. Most people are working in gigantic open spaces, with no respite at all from listening to other people’s conversations. These spaces make people much less productive. They make people physically ill—literally. But it’s a lot less expensive to design an office with no walls.

KM: If you, on behalf of introverts, could give one piece of advice to the extroverts of the world, what would it be?

SC: There’s research that shows that introverted leaders deliver better outcomes than extroverts do when they’re managing proactive employees, because introverted leaders are better at listening, cultivating other people’s ideas, and letting those ideas fly, as opposed to putting their own stamp on things. That’s one example of a way that extroverts could learn from introverts.

Mikaela Lefrak contributed to this write-up.

Kara Miller is the host of “Innovation Hub,” a national radio program that features the thinkers, researchers, and visionaries who are crafting the future. She is based at WGBH Radio in Boston. Follow @IHubRadio

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2 responses to “Innovation Hub: Introverts as Innovators”

  1. Thanks for this Kara. I shared it with my team. I can’t get enough of Susan Cain’s stuff, I guess because I am an introvert myself. I guard for personality imbalance on our team for the reasons she outlines.

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