There were a dozen of us, all strangers, standing around a banquet table. We frantically passed a Ping-Pong ball between the small paper boxes in our hands, as a guy in a golf shirt used a stopwatch to track our speed. Pausing between rounds to discuss technique, we made multiple attempts to shave milliseconds from our time.
The activity—part of a personal development event for executives—was meant to teach us about innovation. All it did was remind me of how much I squirm during icebreaker games. Anyone who has attended a conference or training seminar will recognize these exercises in tomfoolery. Forced social interaction has become part of career development, which is fabulous for the outgoing backslappers in the room. As Chantal Panozzo recently wrote in Salon: “Being noticed in front of a crowd of strangers is worship-worthy.” But it can also make professional development feel like combat training for introverts.
There’s been increasing awareness of the idea that not every leader needs to be a gregarious networker, thanks in part to Susan Cain’s 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. While a 2005 study found 96% of managers at U.S. companies self-identify as extroverts, there’s a long list of successful CEOs—individuals like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos—who value quiet reflection over social stimulation. As Canadian Business reported when Cain’s book was released: “A small but growing body of research shows introverts make better leaders—often spectacularly successful ones—largely because they actually listen to what other people say.”
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So it’s too bad that we still train leaders as if everyone loves a crowd, because roughly half of people don’t. Aside from such training schemes being a miserable experience for those individuals, it also means they are only half-effective? Cain’s Quiet Leadership Institute (QLI) found 64% of workers feel their organizations don’t fully capitalize on their introverted employees.
Part of the problem is an assumption that we need to teach introverts to, at least, mimic crowd-pleasing behaviour in order to be successful leaders. It’s also quite likely that the people who organize workshops and networking conferences are extroverts themselves. (As a friend wryly observed, no group of introverts ever got together and said, “You know what would be helpful? An entire day of small talk.”)
But there are simple ways to adapt professional events so they appeal equally to people who thrive on social interaction and those who are drained by it. Allow conference attendees to opt out of networking events, so those who need some alone time can find it without penalty. Let workshop participants choose their own seats, so introverts can find comfort with friends. And ditch the make-a-new-friend games. “Most extroverts I know will break the ice the minute they enter the room,” writes John Spencer of QLI. “Introverts don’t mind letting the ice melt slowly.” Companies smart enough to invest in employee development shouldn’t alienate potential leaders for the sake of a few parlour games.