In his insightful book “The Wisdom of Crowds” (New York: Anchor Books, 2004), James Surowiecke makes the convincing argument that many heads are wiser than one, even if that one is the sole expert regarding the subject under discussion. As long as the decision-making group is diverse, with each individual being allowed to come to an independent conclusion, this tenet appears to hold, whether the group is estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar or resolving a difficult issue. The message is clear: As a leader your leadership will be more effective if you solicit input from all members of your group, including those who may be reluctant to offer it.
In another excellent book, “Quiet” (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), Susan Cain posits that, from early in the 20th century on, despite the considerable value it has to offer, introversion has become a “second-class personality trait.” Although highly valued earlier in our history, the thoughtful, introspective temperament was replaced by the aggressive, decisive character as the ideal.
Emblematic of the shift that was taking place in American culture was the publication in 1936 of one of the first self-help books, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (Dale Carnegie, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936), which extolled the virtues of an outgoing, dominant personality. That a gregarious, sociable person was more likely to find success than a quiet, contemplative one became a part of common knowledge. The shift was so extreme that many parents became concerned when they detected shyness in their child and often attempted to correct what was thought by many to be an inferior personality trait.
Cain delves deeply into the substantial differences between extroverts and introverts, acknowledging that there are many gradations between the extremes. Extroverts tend to be loquacious and are seldom hesitant to offer their opinions on complex, difficult issues, even when their understanding of them is limited. They don’t always think before speaking and are less skilled listeners than introverts. They prefer to come to decisions rapidly, sometimes with incomplete data, and are much more decisive than introverts.
Introverts, on the other hand, prefer to listen rather than talk and to thoroughly vet an issue before reaching a decision. When they do, they are uncomfortable expressing it in a group setting. They prefer to work alone rather than in groups and, because of their thoughtful approach, their solutions to problems may be more innovative and sound than the shoot-from-the-hip, rapid answers that extroverts frequently propose. They abhor conflict and are likely to remain silent during controversy. In sum, although more difficult to elicit, obtaining input from the quiet members of the group is very worthwhile.
Often the most timely and ideal resolution is reached by balanced contributions from both personality types, the decision-making extroverts and the more thoughtful but reticent introverts. In fact, some of the best team members are those who are not on either extreme of the extrovert-introvert scale. But considering the fact that one-third to one-half of Americans are introverts (I suspect the fraction is a bit less among surgeons) and hesitant to offer their opinions in a group setting, how is this to be accomplished?
First, as a leader, you need to be sensitive to the fact that the introverts in your group are likely out of their comfort zone during communal meetings. It may even be embarrassing for them if they are called upon to offer their advice or opinion. To some degree this reluctance can be overcome by a leader who always attempts to reach consensus by valuing everyone’s opinion. Even the arrangement of the meeting room is important. The ideal is for all participants to be situated around a table rather than facing an imposing leader at the front of the room. This “leveling of the play field” emphasizes equality, de-emphasizes hierarchy, and encourages all to participate. The least likely to contribute can often be nudged from their quiet solitude by gentle urging from the leader with a statement such as: “Joe, I know you have a thoughtful perspective on this. Can you share it with the group?”
However, even the best-run meeting may not result in satisfactory resolution of difficult issues. In my experience, even those toward the extrovert end of the spectrum may be hesitant to offer their honest opinion in a meeting if it is in conflict with that of the leader. It is not uncommon to come to a consensus resolution of a controversial issue in a group meeting only to find out from hallway chatter that many disagree with the agreement reached. It is essential that the leader have access to this hallway chatter. This can be accomplished by way of confidantes who have the trust of both the troops and the leader.