Saturday, November 19, 2016

When Collaboration Kills Creativity

Susan Cain produced a best-selling book on introverts and their place in society: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  She tells us that introversion and extroversion seem to be genetically determined because researchers have been able to correlate responses to stimuli by infants with tendencies toward introversion or extroversion in later life.  Roughly a third to a half of the population falls on the introvert side of the ledger.  There is, of course, a spectrum of tendencies between polar extremes.  Some introverts can perform as extroverts for short periods when necessary.  Some extroverts are also quite capable of quiet introspection when necessary.

These personality differences have also been observed in other animals, suggesting that a blend of the two characteristics within a population is favored by natural selection.  That being the case, Cain is disturbed by trends in education and in workplaces that promote environments suited to the extrovert as the ideals for learning and innovation.  She was moved to produce a chapter titled When Collaboration Kills Creativity.

To understand the issues faced by introverts in an extrovert-oriented world, Cain provides some general characteristics of the two personality types.

“….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.”

“[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.”

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 provides a few interesting quotes from creative introverts that describe the mode in which they feel they need to operate in order to be productive.  The first is from Albert Einstein.

“I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or team work….Full well do I know that to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person should do the thinking and commanding.”

The following quote is by Stephen Wozniak of Apple computer fame.

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads.  They’re almost like artists.  In fact, the very best of them are artists.  And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee.  I don’t think anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee.  If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take.  That advice is: Work aloneYou’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own.  Not on a committee.  Not on a team.

Corporate executives and educators have marched in the opposite direction by creating environments in which students and workers are never allowed to be alone.  Teamwork and constant communication are supposedly the keys to success.

It was encouraging to note that there are indications that corporations are beginning to take note of the need to accommodate different personality types as part of their mode of operation.  The writer of the Schumpeter page in The Economist produced an article titled Shhhh! which included the following lede.

“Companies would benefit from helping introverts to thrive”

The article references Susan Cain’s book and agrees with her conclusions.

“Most companies worry about discriminating against their employees on the basis of race, gender or sexual preference. But they give little thought to their shabby treatment of introverts.”

“The biggest culprit is the fashion for open-plan offices and so-called “group work”. Companies rightly think that the elixir of growth in a world where computers can do much of the grunt work is innovation. But they wrongly conclude that the best way to encourage creativity is to knock down office walls and to hold incessant meetings. This is ill-judged for a number of reasons. It rests on a trite analogy between intellectual and physical barriers between people. It ignores the fact that noise and interruptions make it harder to concentrate. And companies too often forget that whereas extroverts gain energy from other people, introverts need time on their own to recharge.”

Cain provides us information from studies by psychologists and others of worker and company productivity when open-plan offices are utilized.

“A mountain of recent data on open-plan offices from many different industries corroborates the results….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.”

The Schumpeter article also points out that leadership is not a simple attribute. 

“Many companies unconsciously identify leadership skills with extroversion—that is, a willingness to project the ego, press the flesh and prattle on in public.”

Effective leadership depends on the personalities of the people involved.  Extroverts, with the energy and tendency to dominate that they bring, are effective at managing workers who have well-defined responsibilities, but less so when dealing with those whose task is to think creatively.  In the latter case, introvert managers are more adept at encouraging productivity from that class of employee.

“Many of the most successful founders and chief executives in the technology industry, such as Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, are introverts who might have floundered in the extroverted culture of IBM, with its company songs and strong emphasis on team-bonding. In penalising other people like them, firms are passing over or sidelining potential leaders. At all levels of company hierarchies, that means failing to take full advantage of employees’ abilities.”

Besides backing off on open-plan work areas, companies are encouraged to take into account personality differences in evaluating prospective employees, and to manage time better so that only necessary meetings occur and they are conducted in an efficient manner where all participants are likely to contribute—not just the loudest few.

“Some of the cleverest companies are beginning to look at these problems. Amazon has radically overhauled its meetings to make them more focused. Every meeting begins in silence. Those attending must read a six-page memo on the subject of the meeting before they open their mouths. This shifts the emphasis from people’s behaviour in the meeting to focused discussion of the memo’s contents. Google has downplayed the importance of interviews in recruiting and put more emphasis on candidates’ ability to carry out tasks like the ones that they will have to do at the firm, such as writing code or solving technical problems.”

A few examples of enlightened management are encouraging, but it will take much more to overcome decades of propaganda about the “extrovert ideal.” 

The interested reader might find these articles informative:

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