Work

Why Introverts Are the Best Leaders

On How To!, author Susan Cain reveals why quiet people make the best bosses.

Headshots of Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hulton/Archive/Getty Images, Getty Images/Getty Images for Global Citizen, and Bettmann/Getty Images.

On a recent episode of How To!, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, opened up about an epiphany she had during her years as a corporate lawyer: Introversion is a superpower. Cain dug into research and learned that introverts, though often dismissed as passive, can be powerful leaders, as demonstrated by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Bill Gates. In this episode of How To!, Cain shares how introverts can harness their talents to thrive in the workplace and beyond—starting with mastering small talk. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Charles Duhigg: I think of corporate lawyers as these natural extroverts who are loud and opinionated. Did you struggle to network and talk with your colleagues at your old law firm? Did you feel like being an introvert was something that made you out of place?

Susan Cain: I had assumed at the beginning that I would be at this big disadvantage because of my way of being. I was a pretty young associate at the time and the senior partner I was working with kind of at the last minute couldn’t come to this big negotiation so I had to do it. And I was absolutely terrified. But it ended up being this shockingly, successful thing where afterwards the attorney representing the other client wanted to hire me and the client started sending new business. It was all because I was doing the work in my own more quiet and thoughtful way. A lot of what makes a good negotiator is somebody who can really listen deeply and try to come up with constructive agreements that work for everyone. So it wasn’t always comfortable for me, but I started to realize that introversion was this weird superpower.

That’s interesting. Can you tell me what exactly introversion is? How is being an introvert different from being shy? 

Introversion is about the preference for environments that are more mellow, to put it in really colloquial terms. There’s fewer stimuli bombarding you at any one time, which is why you often hear people say, “How do you feel after you’ve been at a party for a couple of hours?” For an extrovert, it’s as if they have an internal battery that’s getting charged by that experience and so they’re now really revved up because they’re getting energy. For an introvert, even if they’re very socially skilled and great at small talk, at the end of the two hours they feel as if their internal battery is being drained and they’re starting to wish that they can go home. All of that is different from shyness, which is much more about the fear of social judgment.

You’ve even written about some of the research showing that introverted leaders oftentimes deliver better outcomes than extroverted leaders. Is that right? 

Yes. There’s research that Adam Grant at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania did where he found that when you have a group of proactive and engaged employees, introverted leaders tend to deliver better outcomes than extroverts do. The reason is introverted leaders love to have an exchange of ideas. They want to listen to the ideas that their employees are bringing forward. Whereas if you are a leader who is more irrepressible or dominant by nature, you might sincerely want to know other people’s ideas but have a conversational style where you’re not getting them as much and you’re less likely to follow them because you tend to put your own stamp on things.

And so how do we use introversion to our advantage?

It’s really a matter of being conscious of the places you can stretch yourself—and doing that by being yourself. You might want to step outside your comfort zone more often and acquire new skills that you can then use outside that comfort zone, but that’s really different from changing who you are fundamentally. It’s really a question of, “What is the gift that I bring? What is the way that I love to connect with people and how can I actually make that happen?”

There is an interesting study that found that in a work hierarchy, people are very comfortable when their peers reveal vulnerabilities about themselves, but they become less comfortable when people who are senior in the hierarchy do it. But, there’s still a whole world that you could talk about within your own life that doesn’t get into any kind of danger zone. What people are really communicating when they talk with each other is emotional life and so what you want to be telegraphing is your warmth and your interest in them. And the topic is almost beside the point.

You’ve said one of your favorite examples is Douglas Conant, who until recently was the CEO of the Campbell Soup Company.

Yes. And one of the things that Doug did—not being the schmoozy guy who loved to walk the hallways—was identify the employees at Campbell who had really been contributing. Then he would sit down and write them these personal letters of thanks. During his time at Campbell, he wrote 30,000 of those letters because that was the way in which he truly connected and expressed gratitude to people. People could feel that it was heartfelt and that it was authentic, and so the letters meant a lot to them and they didn’t need him to be coming to their offices and saying those things. When he first took over at Campbell, it was at the bottom of the employee engagement rankings in the Fortune 500. When he stepped down about a decade later, it was at the top.

OK, so to be a great leader, you don’t have to adopt a new outgoing personality or pretend to be an extrovert. But we’ve all been in social situations where we have to make small talk—maybe you’re alone at a conference or trying to mingle at a spouse’s work party. How do you make the conversations more enjoyable for both you and everyone else? 

For many introverts, the problem that they actually get into is asking too many questions. It’s much easier to be the person who’s not revealing the information and who instead is asking the other person lots of things about themselves. The trouble that you can get into with that is it ends up sounding too much like an interview or even an interrogation.

Don’t feel weird about prepping for it. You might just write down a few different conversation starters that you can use before you make rounds around the office. That’s no different from prepping for any other kind of meeting and it can really work well. It’s funny, as I’m saying this, I’m thinking of a time that I did this when I was 14 years old. I remember having a crush on a guy and I was getting on the phone with him for the first time. I remember worrying that we were going to run out of things to say, so I jotted down a few conversation starters on a piece of paper beforehand. I felt like a total idiot, but I did it and it was incredibly successful. And the thing is, I didn’t have to do that for the rest of my life in those kinds of conversations. That was the thing that I had to do until I got into the groove of knowing how to have those kinds of conversations.

To hear Susan Cain help a quiet boss master small talk and grow as a leader, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! With Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.