Friday, February 17, 2012

Missing the point about introverts

An op-ed piece in the New York Times recently spoke about how introverted ways are ignored in the face of our current cultural emphasis on teams and collaboration.  Creativity and innovation often thrive when those of us who are more introverted have more time alone.

This fits with my recommendation to readers of my book that they take time to reflect before being forced by the extroverted culture to make snap decisions and pronouncements. The introverted temperament needs a tad more time because our brains can be overwhelmed by stimuli. We can then take our insights to our teams where team brainstorming can magnify the gains even further; unlike the op-ed article, I'm not ready to "throw out the baby with the bathwater" given the powerful evidence on the benefits of teams for innovation.

The opinion piece misses the point altogether though when it recounts a classroom where students were "forbidden to ask a question" unless everyone on their team had the identical question. At face value, this sounds outrageous and as a polemic in an op-ed article, it's pretty effective.  But as someone who specializes in introversion and introverts in the professional workplace and has been a college-level educator for many years, I am certain that such a policy by the instructor has been taken out of context. Here's why. If we think for just a moment, we can quickly realize that the teacher likely was not requiring that all students begin with the same question.  No, he or she was more likely simply mandating that before students brought the question to the teacher, that they have asked the question of their peers and sought the answer on their own.  Then, and only then, if no one on the team has the answer, then the question might be posed as a team question to the teacher. 

The paradox is that such a procedure does not disadvantage introverts, as the op-ed implies, but instead it helps introverts, and here's why that is so. The policy first of all teaches all students to take initiative and seek out information, a goal of all good education. Beyond that, it requires extroverts, who are normally first to raise their hands, to learn self-restraint (a bonus to them) and it lessens the chance that more extroverted children will hog all the attention as so often happens in classrooms. This is the first benefit to introverts because they will not have to "compete" as much for floor time.

The policy also requires that more introverted or shy children learn to formulate their thoughts and communicate their question to their peers.  This is a second benefit to introverts who often shy away from interactions, teaching them valuable interpersonal skills which tend to come more naturally to outgoing kids. A third benefit to introverts is that it allows them to engage in one-on-one communication with other members of their team, a strength since most introverts prefer one-on-one and small groups to large groups. This policy minimizes the number of times that a shy child might be expected to ask a question in front of the entire class, which I know full well means that it often does not get asked at all.

So, the example taken out of context to suggest that introverts are disadvantaged by teams in fact misconstrues a subtle classroom strategy that actually benefits both extroverts and introverts alike -- but it especially benefits those who are more introverted. 

Here's the takeaway for you.  There is also a larger point for you at work, I believe. It's not the use of a team in itself that is most important, but rather what is most relevant to introverts is how teams are used in the workplace. Are they used to assist introverts in having a greater voice as this setup was - despite the op-ed's naive interpretation - or are they used to simply squeeze out any private reflection?

The Rise of the New Groupthink

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