Ideas 2012 July/August 2012

Hire Introverts

“Hire good people and leave them alone.”

So declared William McKnight, who was 3M’s unassuming CEO during the 1930s and ’40s, and who encouraged employees to spend 15 percent of their time noodling on their own pet projects. (The policy survives to this day at 3M, and gave birth to the Post-it note, among other innovations.)

Also see:

Caring for Your Introvert
The habits and needs of a little-understood group. By Jonathan Rauch

Introverts of the World, Unite!
A conversation with Jonathan Rauch, the author who—thanks to an astonishingly popular essay in the March 2003 Atlantic—may have unwittingly touched off an Introverts' Rights revolution.

McKnight’s philosophy anticipated one of the most intriguing breakthroughs in recent leadership theory. According to a team of researchers led by the Wharton management professor Adam Grant, introverted leaders typically deliver better outcomes than extroverts, because they’re more likely to let proactive employees run with their ideas. Extroverted leaders, who like to be at the center of attention, may feel threatened by employees who take too much initiative (but do outperform introverts when managing less proactive workers who rely on their leader for inspiration).

Grant’s research echoes other findings on the power of introverts. They’re persistent—give them a difficult puzzle to solve, and they’ll analyze it before diving in, then work at it diligently. (“It’s not that I’m so smart,” said Einstein. “It’s that I stay with problems longer.”) And they’re careful risk-takers: less likely to get into car accidents, participate in extreme sports—or place outsize financial bets. (Warren Buffett is a self-described introvert who attributes his success to his temperament.)

Introverts are also comfortable with solitude—a crucial spur to creativity. When the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist studied the lives of the most-creative people across a variety of fields, they almost always found visionaries who were introverted enough to spend large chunks of time alone.

Management literature is full of advice for introverted leaders on how to be more extroverted, says Grant: Smile more! Practice your public speaking! But extroverts might take a page from their introverted peers, too—by hiring good people and leaving them alone.

Next idea: Violence Doesn’t Work (Most of the Time)

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
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