The Sounds of Silence: Learning to Evolve Quietly with Susan Cain

Every person is unique. Every voice has its own story to tell, and hearing that story—or having one’s story be heard—is empowering.

That was the theme of the opening General Session of the 2019 ISPA Conference & Expo, which formally kicked off the three-day event on the morning of September 11. After a moment of silence in honor of lives affected by tragedies worldwide, Human Nature emphasized the strength of love and friendship with a set that included performances of “Stand by Me” and “Reach Out (I’ll Be There).”

With a strong air of excitement in the room, ISPA Chairman Garrett Mersberger took the stage to deliver the ISPA Chairman’s annual opening address. Mersberger emphasized the theme of the 2019 ISPA Conference & Expo—“EVOLVE”—and highlighted the many ways in which ISPA members can get more involved. “This is your organization. It’s for you, by you,” Mersberger said.

Next, Mersberger presented this year’s ISPA Dedicated Contributor award to ISPA educator Bryan Williams. “ISPA embraced me from my very first Conference” in 2006, said Williams in his acceptance remarks. He thanked his family, as well as an early career mentor, and stressed the importance of personal and professional accountability. “We all need to be challenged,” asserted Williams. “Lift me higher. Insist on Excellence.”

Re-Evaluate Your Expectations

So: how does one insist on excellence? How does one make every member of their team a contributor? You empower them to speak up and listen when they do. With extroverts, this is easy, but it can be a challenge with introverts.

That’s where Susan Cain comes in. Cain, an introvert who has become the world’s leading expert
on unlocking the potential of introverts at work, delivered the opening keynote and a handful of practical takeaways on getting the most out of the introverts on each attendee’s team. She began by asking the audience to consider what they imagine a business leader being: gregarious, bold, alpha. However, good leaders come in all stripes, and Cain challenged the audience to “stretch their view” of what traits a leader should have.

The goal, then, is balance between the extroverts and introverts on one’s team. “How do you get that yin and yang working so that everyone understands
each other?” asked Cain. The first step is to identify who, including yourself, is an extrovert and introvert. She demonstrated this with an activity: “I want to get each of you thinking about who you truly are. Break into groups of four, and share a story from your childhood about who you are. then, select the most personal story and we’ll share some of them with the room as a whole.”

“And i’m just kidding. We are not going to do any such thing.” However, whether one felt fear or excitement to participate in the exercise is a good indicator of an introverted or extroverted nature. According to Cain, nature is indeed the operative word: introversion and extroversion are two of the most basic traits of human psychology, reflected in the sensitivity of one’s nervous system. It is therefore essential to work with each team
member’s nature, rather than trying to shape everyone into an extrovert— often the cultural default.

Practical Strategies

Fortunately, there are a number of things one can easily implement to start working with, rather than against, the nature of the introverts on their team.

“In the typical meeting, three people do 70 percent of the talking,” says Cain. “it’s definitely not a good thing, because on average each person has the same number of good and bad ideas.” For introverts, cain suggests spending time before the meeting thinking about what one wants to contribute. Once they’re in the meeting, it’s equally important to speak up early so that the conversation evolves around one's initial input.

It’s also critical to understand that introverts express enthusiasm in a more muted way than extroverts. Introverts need to ramp up their enthusiasm when interacting with extroverts, and extroverts need to be mindful to not overpower introverts with their own enthusiasm. By simply being aware of expressions of enthusiasm, Cain says “you can avoid a world of misunderstanding.”

Creating a safe space for people to speak up is the next step in elevating the voices of one’s introverted employees. Seek out dissenting opinions and challenge someone on your team to play devil’s advocate during a meeting; doing so ensures that there’s always a diversity of opinion.

Lastly, Cain suggests that leaders try to match their leadership style to the engagement level of the employee or the team as a whole. If possible, hire team leaders who complement the engagement of their team; this is because research has shown that introverted leaders get better results from teams that are actively engaged, whereas extroverts get better results when employees need motivation.

When the right environment is created, introverts will begin to speak up more frequently and offer their intelligence and creativity to the world.
Cain parted by asking a question of the introverts in the room: “What is the thing that matters so much to you that you carry it around with you wherever you go? Every so often, take those things out and share them. The world needs you, and it needs the things you carry.”