Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Introversion, Extroversion, and Human Productivity

Susan Cain provides a fascinating look at the two opposing personality characteristics of introversion and extroversion in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. She explains how the extrovert has become the idealized personality type in our society and what this means for those who are not comfortable in environments designed for such people. She also discusses strategies whereby those who need quiet can cope with a world that is determined to be noisy.

Psychologists claim that between a third and a half of people in the US are introverts. It is difficult to determine a precise number because people fall at all places along the introversion-to-extroversion scale. It is also possible for individuals to morph (at least temporarily) from one personality form into the other as situations demand, so simple, brief observations can also be misleading. Nevertheless, psychologists believe that the tendency towards either of the two personality types is genetically wired because they can measure differences in physiological response to certain stimuli even in infancy. Paradoxically, the infants who respond most strongly to external stimuli are the ones who are most likely to shrink from excessive external stimulation in later life.

Cain provides some dominant characteristics of the two types. In terms of comfort levels for external stimulation:

"….introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel ‘just right’ with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo."

In terms of how the two might comport themselves in a work environment:

"Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration."

"Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast (sometimes rash) decisions, and are comfortable multitasking and risk-taking."

And in terms of social styles:

"[Introverts] listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions."

"[Extroverts] tend to be assertive, dominant, and in great need of company. Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say. They’re comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude."

What is of interest here are work environments and employee productivity. Given a mixture of these two personality types, are current business practices augmenting or inhibiting productivity?

Cain tells us that standard intelligence tests indicate little difference between extroverts and introverts. However, when it comes to academic achievement and the ability to solve complex problems differences emerge.

"Extroverts get better grades than introverts during elementary school, but introverts outperform extroverts in high school and college. At the university level, introversion predicts academic performance better than cognitive ability….Introverts receive disproportionate numbers of graduate degrees, National Merit Scholarship finalist positions, and Phi Beta Kappa keys. They outperform extroverts on the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal test, an assessment of critical thinking widely used by businesses for hiring and promotion."

Extroverts are better than introverts

"….on many kinds of tasks, particularly those performed under time or social pressure….Extroverts are better than introverts at handling information overload."

However, there are fundamental differences in how the two types approach complex problems.

"Introverts seem to think more carefully than extroverts….Extroverts are more likely to take a quick-and-dirty approach to problem solving, trading accuracy for speed, making increasing numbers of mistakes as they go, and abandoning ship altogether when the problem seems too difficult or frustrating."

Cain sums up the introvert approach with a quote from Albert Einstein.

"’It’s not that I’m so smart,’ said Einstein, who was a consummate introvert. ‘It’s that I stay with problems longer’."

When researchers study the characteristics of people that would be defined as "creative" by society, they arrive at a prototype.

"One of the most interesting findings….was that the more creative people tended to be socially poised introverts. They were interpersonally skilled but ‘not of an especially sociable or participative temperament.’ They described themselves as independent and individualistic. As teens, many had been shy and solitary."

Cain draws a conclusion from the studies of creative people.

"….there’s a less obvious yet surprisingly powerful explanation for introverts’ creative advantage—an explanation that everyone can learn from: introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation."

Given this background, one might expect that businesses have learned to provide their employees flexible environments where privacy is available for those who choose to concentrate on difficult problems. Instead businesses seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

"It is the story of a contemporary phenomenon that I call the New Groupthink—a phenomenon that has the potential to stifle productivity at work and to deprive schoolchildren of the skills they’ll need to achieve excellence in an increasingly competitive world."

"The New Groupthink elevates teamwork above all else. It insists that creativity and intellectual achievement come from a gregarious place."

What Cain refers to as the New Groupthink seems to have arisen from a misinterpretation of experiences derived from the internet where collaborative projects have produced spectacular results.

"On the internet, wondrous creations were produced via shared brainpower: Linux….Wikipedia……. These collective productions, exponentially greater than the sum of their parts, were so awe-inspiring that we came to revere the hive mind, the wisdom of crowds, the miracle of crowdsourcing. Collaboration became a sacred concept—the key multiplier for success."

What is overlooked in evaluating this internet-based collaboration is that the contributions are coming mostly from independent individuals (probably introverts) working alone in isolated environments. A given individual can evaluate the efforts of others and think long and hard before arriving at his particular contribution and making it public. That is a special form of collaboration that has nothing to do with a physical "crowd."

The New Groupthink believes this internet-based success can be recreated with real crowds (teams), not virtual ones.

"Some of these teams are virtual, working together from remote locations, but others demand a tremendous amount of face-to-face interaction, in the form of team-building exercises and retreats….and physical workspaces that afford little privacy. Today’s employees inhabit open office plans, in which no one has a room of his or her own, the only walls are the ones holding up the building, and senior executives operate from the center of the boundary-less floor along with everyone else. In fact, over 70 percent of today’s employees work in an open plan…."

And how has this been working out? Psychologists have studied productivity in open and private configurations, and others have tabulated data from company performance.

"A mountain of recent data on open-plan offices from many different industries corroborates the results of the [psychologists’] games. Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and elevated stress levels and to get the flu; they argue more with their colleagues; they worry about coworkers eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their computer screens. They have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They are often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates; releases cortisol, the body’s flight-or-fight ‘stress’ hormone; and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive, and slow to help others."

That certainly describes great places to work.

Introversion and extroversion, or at least high- and low-sensitivity individuals, seem to be common in other species besides humans. This suggests that the mixture of types might have been selected because of higher survivability of the species. In other words the species is more secure and more sustainable when it has a variety of responses to outside stimulants. Nature has decided that not everyone should be an introvert or an extrovert. Why can’t our businesses and schools arrive at the same conclusion?

1 comment:

  1. Rich, I can't believe you got through your thesis without drawing any comparisons within the current political climate, i.e., the loud extroverted voices coming from talk radio, mostly right-winged and the quiet policy-oriented wonks working away in the shadows, both on the right and left but probably more on the left.


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