The topic of introversion is enjoying some major buzz, and can I just say, it’s about time? 😉 Thanks to Susan Cain and her newly released book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” folks are reading about introverts in People magazine, The New York Times and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other places.
One of the most interesting conversations is happening around The New York Times opinion piece penned by Cain, titled “The Rise of the New Groupthink.” She takes a stand for introverts, certainly, but her main point is about the loss of quiet, private, solo contemplation time. Instead, our work places and schools have been shifting towards more intensive collaborative learning environments. She writes,
“The New Groupthink has overtaken our workplaces, our schools and our religious institutions. Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I’m talking about. Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has ‘a room of one’s own.’ During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.”
I know exactly what she’s talking about. Early in my career, I realized that I did my best work when I had private space. Even talking on the phone with someone else in the room was painful for me. I learned that the environment I was working in was as important as the work I was doing. Cain acknowledges that magic can happen in teams… but if we’re forced into the group situation, we’re not as likely to be able to pull a rabbit out of our hat.
The answer to the question of where creativity and innovation thrive – in groups or in solitude – isn’t either/or … it’s both/and.
Here’s my take on it: When I hear the word “groupthink,” images of sheep pop into my head, with everyone falling to line with whichever voice or opinion is the loudest. That’s certainly not an environment in which creativity would flourish. Introverts tend not to process aloud or jump into fast-paced conversations, so it’s unlikely their voice will be the loudest. Unless leaders are aware of the way introverts think and process, they might not realize that there is still valuable information left on the table.
Creativity, productivity and collaboration, as well as leadership, are all enhanced when those who need it (which definitely includes introverts) have space to think. My absolute favorite words on the subject come from essayist and critic William Deresiewicz in a speech he gave at West Point in October 2009.
My first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.
Consider that for a moment, the truth of this statement: My first thought is never my best thought. It’s not that we shouldn’t be open to influence; we simply need to give ourselves space for reflection, away from the group. To connect the dots. To come up with an original thought. To know what WE think about something.
And that’s part of what differentiates creative thinkers from the rest of the pack: they have taken time in solitude to cultivate original ideas. Rather than follow the conventional wisdom, the “groupthink,” they’ve put energy into coming to their own conclusions. This doesn’t require that you be bolder or louder or more noticeable than anyone else – you will become those things naturally when you grow confident through reflection. It might, however, require asking for solitude, and that might not be easy when you’re in a group setting or someone is demanding an immediate answer.
How do you explain it to someone who doesn’t get it and insists on groupthink? The simple response is to say, “I can give you my first reaction, but I’ll give a better response if I have time to think about it.” Let them know that to do your best work, you need to take the data and sift through it and sit with it alone long enough to be creative. We can be more effective in collaborative situations if we’ve had an opportunity to get our thoughts and questions in order first.
Here’s how to put the “I” in “Team” and create a more “introvert friendly” environment for yourself within “go team!” situations:
Take the lead. Volunteer or position yourself to be the team leader, where you’ll (theoretically) have more control over how the group operates. If you can’t be the head honcho, see what processes you can lead within the group.
Brainstorm new ways to brainstorm. Group brainstorming sessions can be stressful for introverts; we like to be prepared, to think things through, to observe. Think of alternative ways to get the same results and increase your participation: Ask for topic questions in advance. Brainstorm in solitude before going into the meeting. Ask to be the scribe or facilitator. Incorporate small group (3-4 people) brainstorming time into big group processes. Give everyone post-its and provide time for solo thinking in the group setting.
Get up and out. Draw firm boundaries around break and lunch times. Don’t get sucked into a “working lunch” or not moving from your chair when it’s time for a break. These might be the only 15, 20 or 30 minute opportunities for solitude that you have in a day. Find a firm and polite way to discourage people from highjacking your time. For instance, “It’d be great to keep the conversation going, and I’m happy to do that after I take a break.”
Ask for a “home office” day. If certain aspects of your work can be done apart from the team, suggest that you have occasional “home office” time. Your work or boss doesn’t permit that? Simulate it by spending a few hours working from the coffee shop down the block, or an empty conference room or office. Not only does it remove you from the more people-saturated environment, but you get the bonus of a change of scenery.
De-clutter your space and mind. We know that being surrounded by people all day uses up our energy reserves. The same holds true for being surrounded by stuff. Get control of your papers and files, remove visual clutter and do whatever you can with whatever space you have to make it easy on the eyes. As I shared on Facebook earlier this week, “simplicity of space=serenity of mind.”
Mute the virtual voices. It’s not only flesh-and-blood people demanding our attention; social media, blogs and online news can max out what little free bandwidth we have left. Just like you don’t want constant conversation to cut into your breaks, don’t let the virtual world do the same thing. Step away from the computer, turn off your smart phone and unplug.
Every team needs an “I” – both introverts and individual thinkers. The key to collaboration that works is creating space for different personalities, learning styles and communication methods to coexist in a way that creates energy, not stress. The individual should be honored, as well as the team. We need regenerative solitude to be balanced with thoughtful team approaches.
The Three Musketeers summed it up best: “All for one and one for all!”