Can introverts succeed in business?February 2, 2012: 12:41 PM ET
Organizations tend to celebrate and promote extroverted personalities, but by some calculations, introverts make up half of the population. That's an awful lot of talent to exclude from executive ranks.
FORTUNE -- When you picture a leader, the image that usually comes to mind is someone like Jack Welch or Bill Clinton -- gregarious, energized by crowds.
Organizations tend to celebrate and promote such extroverted personalities, as opposed to introverts, who draw energy from ideas or one-on-one interactions. Such quiet types are often not as visible within companies, but by some calculations, introverts make up half of the population. That's an awful lot of talent to exclude from executive ranks.
It's the numerical equivalent of excluding women -- and similarly shortsighted, says Susan Cain, author of the new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. "There's a bias in our culture against introversion," she says. To use Betty Friedan's language from The Feminine Mystique, "it's a problem in our culture that has no name" -- pervasive, yet seldom discussed, at least until recently.
Certainly, introverts trying to make it in business face obstacles. As part of their hiring processes, some companies give personality tests that seem designed to weed out introverts.
If you survive that, you soon discover that "Most of our workplaces are set up for maximum stimulation," says Cain. Some 70%, she says, are "open plan" offices, where people must deal with "the noise and gazes of their co-workers all day long."
Companies have an "inordinate belief in the power of meetings and brainstorming," and they tend to promote people who make themselves visible, often by speaking up first (whether they have anything meaningful to contribute or not). As a result, "most of us, at a young age, learn how to act much more extroverted than we are."
But this ignores that introverts have several strengths that are helpful in business.
For starters, being inside one's own head a lot isn't a bad thing. "We get our energy from what people refer to as our inner world," says Lisa Petrilli, a self-proclaimed introvert and CEO of C-Level Strategies, a company that works with leaders in mid-sized firms ($100 million to $1 billion). "That's very powerful. Ideas really do run businesses." Being energized by one's inner world translates into "being able to see and create a vision for others to follow."
Second, while introverts don't spend a lot of time talking, they do spend a lot of time listening -- not a bad skill for managing client interactions.
They may even be better networkers. "There's a myth that networking is all about cold-calling people and walking up to strangers at cocktail parties," says Lindsey Pollak, global spokesperson for LinkedIn (LNKD) and author of the newly re-issued book Getting from College to Career. "Often the best connections are made through mutual acquaintances. Shy people tend to feel most comfortable networking with the people they know, and then ask those people for referrals to others. That's a good strategy for anyone."
Fortunately for introverts and the organizations that would like to tap their talent, technology is making it easier to be visible without shouting. "What technology does, really, is it allows us to connect with other people in less stimulating ways," says Cain.
Email introductions are infinitely easier for introverts than picking up the phone, and "with the Internet, you can connect with hundreds, thousands, or millions of people without ever leaving the house." A white paper is easily shared and debated without having to fly somewhere to make a presentation.
Organizations can also actively take steps to help their introverts feel comfortable. Cain suggests that companies "should think really hard about their office design" and create places where "people can have personalization and privacy" without a huge conference room reservation process. "You shouldn't have to sign up to be by yourself."
And even rethinking meetings can help. "Make sure to give people ways to contribute that aren't just to jump into the fray." Something as simple as handing out an agenda of a meeting in advance will give introverts "time to think it through." And since introverts are often energized by such thinking, they'll probably have great ideas to contribute -- if you bother to listen.