You are a member of a small group of survivors that has just crash-landed a float plane in remote sub-arctic Canada. You have been able to salvage 15 items from the plane, but you can’t take all of them with you.
So as a group, you must rank order the items based on their importance to your survival. The sun will set soon, so time is limited.
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A Question of Survival
This is the situation given to new Harvard Business School students as part of an exercise designed to teach group synergy. Author Susan Cain follows the action in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
The group she observed had an advantage over the others: one of their members had extensive experience in the northern backwoods. Most of his ideas turned out to be right. But they were also ignored.
When the group finalized its list, it was based on what the more vocal members of the group thought. And it turns out that many of their ideas were not good ones.
What happened? The person with the experience was less out-going than his teammates. He exhibited many of the characteristics of the introvert: reserved, thoughtful, not assertive. When he did voice his ideas, they were disregarded because he did not state them confidently.
Loudest isn’t Best
The louder, more insistent team members held sway. Not because they were right or better informed or more skilled, but because they were more vocal and more confident.
Later, when they watched a video of their effort, group members were embarrassed to hear the right answers brought up and ignored.
One member said, “The ideas that were rejected would have kept us alive and out of trouble, but they were dismissed because of the conviction with which the more vocal people suggested their ideas.”
This is one of several great examples Cain brings to light in her authoritative look at introversion in a noisy world.
In another study she cites, groups of students had to solve math problems together, then rate each other’s intelligence and judgement. The students who spoke first and most often were consistently given the highest ratings, even though their suggestions (and math SAT scores) were no better than those of the less talkative students.
And in a third study, she noted that “television pundits – people who make their living by holding forth confidently on the basis of limited information – make worse predictions about political and economic trends than they would by random choice.”
These studies all support one of the key conclusions Cain asserts:
Loudest and most vocal is not necessarily best; and sometimes it’s the worst. We have a tendency to defer to someone who is willing to act decisively, but that can be to our peril.
The Extrovert Ideal?
Quiet is full of illuminating points and interesting examples like these. Noting that a third or more of us are introverted, it makes sense to come to a better understanding of who the introverted are and how they compare with extroverts.
Introverts work better in low-stimulation environments where they have the space to focus, think, and create. Forcing everyone to conform to the extrovert ideal may lead us to miss out on what our quieter teammates have to offer.
Recognize that some of the best ideas and most insightful thinking may be done by some of the quietest members of your team. Be sure you are taking the time and giving voice to their ideas and keeping them from being drowned out.
As a leader, think about who you are and what that can mean. If you are an extrovert prone to rapid, decisive action, it may pay to force yourself to slow down, give voice to others on the team, and listen with an open mind before acting.
If you tend towards introversion (like I do), recognize that it will take more effort to be heard, but that your contributions are no less valuable than your louder teammates.
Quiet is a great read for any leader who wants to understand how his teammates function and learn how to help them, and their teams, perform to their highest potential.
For more on these themes, you may want to also check out Cain’s excellent TED Talk. Recorded in February of 2012, it has over 12 million views. I found it pleasantly ironic that this speaker for the introverted received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of her presentation.
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