Let’s Run It Up the Flagpole and See Who Salutes…

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In his book “Will There be Donuts?” David Pearl estimates that, on average, people will waste up to two hours of their working day in what he calls “nearly meetings”. These are meetings where you’re not entirely sure why you’re there, the content is only vaguely relevant, issues are only partly discussed and decisions almost get made. You will more than likely be told that the project is “facing some headwinds” and that the “low hanging fruit” needs to be “synergised”. You will be asked to “think outside the box”, “champion an objective”, and to “drill down to the nuts and bolts”. It will ultimately be decided that there “aren’t enough boots on the ground” and that “going forward” you will need to “sharpen your pencils” before you will be able to successfully “square the circles” and “close the loop” for the “key stakeholders”. You will be sent to “run with it” and reminded that management has an “open door policy” should you have a “paradigm shift” in the meantime. After all, we are all “team players”, “rowing in the same direction” and while the issue has been “taken offline” for the moment, once the “silos have been torn down internally” and we’re able to go back to “grass roots level” and establish a “bottom up approach”, we should be able to “put lipstick on the pig”.

If you’re already feeling nauseous, it will sadden you even further to know that if this situation sounds all too familiar, by retirement, Pearl estimates that you will have wasted an accumulative 6 years of your career in these “nearly meetings”, where the high point was the donuts. It seems like these workplace clichés and management speak are not only driving the workforce mad, but are also extremely counterproductive. So why are business leaders spewing out buzzwords that don’t actually seem to mean anything; speaking in abstract, circular nonsense that doesn’t communicate any important information? There is no longer room for genuine discussion with real value where problems can actually be solved. It seems as though business leadership no longer entails actual leadership skills and the making of key decisions, but is rather a process of hiding behind convoluted language that will hopefully confuse people into thinking that a job is being done.

So why is this happening? If you were to ask Susan Cain, author of the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking”, she would argue, quite passionately in fact, that it is because we are choosing the wrong people to be our leaders. In the 20th Century our world evolved into a society that favours the man of action over the man of contemplation. As cities grew and people moved away from their small town upbringing where everyone knew everyone to a community of strangers, you had to do more and more to get yourself noticed, to stand out from the crowd. Invariably, this required you to be social and outgoing. And so society began to attribute more value to the extraverted and charismatic among us. And over time our institutions have adapted to support this way of thinking. At schools, desks are now arranged in “pods” instead of the rows that we were used to. Everything is a group activity, you are encouraged to constantly interact with others and those pupils who would prefer to work alone or at least enjoy a little alone time are labelled as “unsociable” and “weird”. At work our offices are open plan and it is widely believed that the best results will be yielded from a mass brainstorming session, rather than contemplation in solitude. Groups famously follow dominant and captivating people and so it is these extroverts that are chosen to lead the group, while the introverts are overlooked because of their quiet demeanour.

As Cain explains in her book, introversion should not be confused with shyness, which is more specifically the fear of social judgement. Introversion and extroversion all boil down to how you respond to stimulation. Extroverts crave large amounts of external stimulation. That is why they constantly need to engage with others and their environment. Introverts on the other hand react better to low key environments where there is less stimulation. Cain argues that instead of favouring one type over the other, we should allow people to develop and to explore their abilities and creativity in the zone of stimulation that is best suited to them. Surprisingly, there is no correlation between being outgoing and enigmatic and being a good leader. Cain argues that extroverted leaders will often become over excited with their own idea and completely take over, limiting input from others. They are more prone to make rash decisions, with less thoughtfulness that might have them hiding behind meaningless management speak as the project progresses. Introverts on the other hand will be more open to the ideas of others and as they prefer minimal external stimulation, they will limit meetings to only discuss the most important issues and decision making milestones of a project.

No one is a complete introvert or a total extrovert. We all fall somewhere along the spectrum. And I’m not saying that all extroverts are bad leaders and are solely responsible for the buzzwords and annoying clichés that we have to put up with. What I am saying though is that introversion should no longer be confused with shyness and that just because someone is quiet it does not mean they are incapable of leading a team and bringing the best out of them. We need to start developing a culture that is favourable to both personality types, because, after all, only once you have the core competencies will you be able to action the key deliverables.

Some famous, successful introverts…

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