Author: Susan Cain
This book is an affirmation of the role of introverts in society. It explores the creative contributions of introverts to human advancement, and reviewed the value they add to groups and organisations. The author challenges the myth of ‘the extrovert ideal‘ which dominates modern life, and she points out the disadvantages of this flawed model (pages 4-6). She confronts the prevailing situation where introverts, forced to hide from themselves, are driven to adopt a second class personality trait (page 4).
The book traced the ascendency of extroversion as the societal ideal, a situation the author attributes to the adoption of the culture of personality over the culture of character. The book reviewed the influential role in this process of people such as Dale Carnegie and Alfred Adler (pages 21-26). The author also explored the contribution of the myth of charismatic leadership, promoted by people such as Tony Robbins (page 34), and by institutions such as Harvard Business School (page 43). She explored the malign effect of these myths, particularly on decision-making and leadership. Extroverts, for example, have a disproportionate influence on group decision-making, and this is partly because people wrongly attribute better judgment to louder and faster talkers (pages 50-53).
The author devotes a large part of her book to discussing the differences between extroverts and introverts. She established the physiologic, genetic and cultural underpinnings of introversion and extroversion, and reviewed their distinguishing traits regarding reactivity, temperament, alertness, emotionality, and arousal. Making reference to the work of Elaine Aron, the author reviewed the 27 attributes of high sensitivity which describe introverts; these include how they dream, think, process information, and relate to material wealth and pleasure (pages 136-137). In contrast, she explored reward-sensitivity as a defining feature of extroverts, people who ‘tend to experience more pleasure and excitement than introverts do’ (pages 159-160). The book detailed several other characteristics of extroverts, many detrimental, such as a tendency to risky behaviour (page 161), difficulty in delaying gratification (page 163), unwillingness to reflect on mistakes (page 166), and a reluctance to persevere with tasks (page 168).
The book asserts that up to a half of the population are introverts, and it gave several illustrative examples of their important contribution to human progress. These include the achievements of people such as Isaac Newton, Frederic Chopin, George Orwell, Larry Page, and Steve Wozniak (pages 5, 71-73). Discarding the myth that only extroverts make good leaders, the author lists several effective introvert leaders for example Charles Schwab and Bill Gates (page 53). She reviewed research which suggest that introverts are more effective leaders in situations where their followers are proactive rather than passive (page 56-57).
The book also explored the intriguing association between introversion and creativity, observing that ‘…creative people tended to be socially poised introverts…’ (page 74). The author supports this with research which show that many creative works are achieved by people who prefer to work alone. She also pointed out that ‘… top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environment, and freedom from interruption‘ (page 84).
The author was critical of many organisational practices that suppress the contribution of introverts. A key example is the adoption of the ‘New Groupthink’, a process which favours group-work over individual effort. She argued against this, pointing out that productivity diminishes the larger the group (page 88). She also cited research which showed the ineffectiveness of many group activities. An example is brainstorming which counter-productively promotes social loafing, production blocking, and evaluation apprehension (page 88-89). In this vein she argued against working environments such as open plan offices which reduce productivity, impair memory and increase stress (page 84).
The book made several recommendations to optimise the potential of introverts. For example, it urged organisations to adopt a symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationship to enhance group work (page 93). The author nudged introverts to identify their core personal projects, to create restorative niches, and to recognise the situations where it is beneficial for them to act contrary to their natural inclination (page 217-234).
The lessons of this book are useful not just for introverts but for society as a whole. The book exposes the quiet but significant contributions of introverts, asserts their stabilising influence on organisations, and lists their largely untapped potentials. The author shows how institutions can tap into the creative energy of introverts by rejecting the extrovert ideal, and by creating the right working and living environment for introverts to flourish. The book ran the small risk of promoting an ‘introvert ideal’ but fell just short of this.
This book is detailed and well-researched. It is extremely well-written and it provides a lot of insights which are relevant to leadership and team decision-making. The author used anecdotes, sparingly and appropriately, to illustrate her arguments. She made many recommendations which are applicable to all institutions, including health care. The book is important for individuals, relationships and groups, and I highly recommend it to all doctors.
- Publisher, Place, Date: Penguin, London, 2012
- Number of Chapters: 11
- Number of Pages: 333
- ISBN: 978-0-141-02919-1
- Price: £6.29
- Star Rating: 5 stars