The Power of Introverts: A Manifesto for Quiet Brilliance

  • Introverts prefer quiet, minimally stimulating environments, while extroverts need higher levels of stimulation to feel their best. Stimulation comes in all forms – social stimulation, but also lights, noise, and so on.
  • It’s also important to understand that introversion is different from shyness. Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, while introversion is simply the preference for less stimulation.
  • Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts.
  • Many introverts feel there’s something wrong with them, and try to pass as extroverts. But whenever you try to pass as something you’re not, you lose a part of yourself along the way. You especially lose a sense of how to spend your time.
  • According to the latest research, one third to one half of us are introverts – that’s one out of every two or three people you know.
  • Most schools and workplaces now organize workers and students into groups, believing that creativity and productivity comes from a gregarious place.
  • When you’re working in a group, it’s hard to know what you truly think. We’re such social animals that we instinctively mimic others’ opinions, often without realizing we’re doing it.
  • Forty years of research shows that brainstorming in groups is a terrible way to produce creative ideas. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.
  • An interesting line of research by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist suggests that the most creative people in many fields are usually introverts. This is probably because introverts are comfortable spending time alone, and solitude is a crucial (and underrated) ingredient for creativity.

But I also believe that introversion is my greatest strength. I have such a strong inner life that I’m never bored and only occasionally lonely. No matter what mayhem is happening around me, I know I can always turn inward. (Note: example of escaping through music.)

In our culture, snails are not considered valiant animals – we are constantly exhorting people to “come out of their shells” – but there’s a lot to be said for taking your home with you wherever you go. (Note: Like a snail taking your environment with you wherever you go – how to do this?).




How to create a work space supporting both introverts and extroverts

Challenges that introverts face professionally and personally in a society that idealizes risk-takers, big personalities, and wants everybody to work in groups.
Cain describes introverts as people who prefer quiet, minimally stimulating environments. Introverts are thinkers and listeners; they are most creative/productive when they have more quiet spaces.   But if you look at our environment, our work environments are created to support extroverts.
Workspaces are open-planned; companies emphasize group work; networking is essential; and loud people with big ideas are idealized.
Important to understand that introverts lead and work differently.
What I would like to see are environments that support both introverts and extroverts.  It is estimated that 1/3 to 1/2 of the workforce are introverts.
My suggestions for unleashing the introverts is to redesign workspaces that allow for quiet/private spaces, less emphasis on brainstorming sessions/group work for ideas, and don’t criticize introverts for being introverts.

How can our spaces improve creativity?

  • ACCOMMODATE BOTH SOLITARY & GROUP WORK. The extremes of closed office and “open concept” workspaces spaces cater to solitary and group work respectively. Cubicles are the worst of both worlds. Some people (and some tasks) are best performed alone; others with groups.The creative work environment would cater to both modes of working. For example, both laboratory and workplace experiments show that brainstorming techniques work best if they are done alone first, then with a group.
  • INCLUDE AN INFORMAL, SOCIAL SPACE WHERE PEOPLE CAN WORK IF THEY WANT TO. Lounge and café areas (and the like) stimulate informal interaction that can generate new ideas. A relaxing atmosphere can help. It is also good for people to have an option to work in a different part of the workplace if they need a periodic change of scenery. Being able to tote a laptop to an informal area can do wonders.
  • DON’T LET FURNITURE CONNOTE HIERARCHICAL ROLES OR CONTROL RELATIONSHIPS. Out: long boardroom tables. In: roundtables. Better: not hashing out ideas around a table at all; a circle of sofas and collection of lap trays would be an improvement. This principle applies to many other pieces of furniture. Also, creative work flourishes if people are given a certain sphere of autonomy. This means that the space should not be able to accommodate surveillance and hecktoring from the boss.
  • LET PEOPLE LEAVE THE SPACE AT THEIR DISCRETION. People should be free to leave the space to (a.) think about problems and tasks in a different context (“excursions”) and (b.) look outside for sources of inspiration (what Twyla Tharp calls “scratching for ideas”).
  • TASTEFUL AESTHETICS. Ugly is bad. The challenge isn’t so much about finding an aethetic that caters to everyone–there are many “looks” that work for most people. The challenge is to prevent individual’s workspace customizations from intruding on someone else’s thinking. Many workplaces for creatives are large jumbles of brick-a-brack (inspirations, old projects, workspace decoration, etc.).

The biggest challenge is creating a workplace that embraces creativity and more importantly radical change.
Real creativity comes when we are allowed to great risks and make huge leaps, not baby steps from the status quo.
WALL SPACE!!! Wall space accommodates flip charts, sticky notes, posters, bulleting boards and whiteboards.
Large, vertical, shared work areas are incredibly useful for collaboration and creativity.
Routine and familiarity are the enemy of creativity…so if you want to improve creativity get out of your routine and familiar environment.


Open Workspaces Are Here to Stay. Now, How Do We Get Any Work Done?

Shhhh … Don’t tell anyone, but as I write this post, I’m “hiding” in a remote conference room in our design firm’s open workspace.

Seriously, it’s moments like this—when I pine for privacy to think and write—that make me question the value of open-plan workplace design. Now, don’t get me wrong; an extrovert by nature, I enjoy the engagement in an open work environment. When I really need to think, however, I have to retreat to a quiet, private space. Only then can I actually contemplate and create. 

As a specialist in integrating workplace design and culture, I’m routinely asked by clients to create an environment that can both increase productivity and promote collaboration and innovation. This is a tall order.

Open-plan design may inspire collaboration but it can also impede productivity. According to a recent New York Times article, noise is a serious problem in the open-plan office, and speech, because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory, is the most disturbing type of sound. Likewise, when a conversation carries to an “unwilling listener,” his or her performance measurably declines in cognitive tasks such as reading, writing, and other forms of creative work.

In spite of this, market demands have all the major office furniture manufacturers, such as Knoll, feverishly rolling out solutions for creating a “collaborative workplace.” (And this is not to overlook how a weak economic recovery has every company also seeking to save space and money.) Among the countless different solutions are benching (think long dining tables with workers sitting across from one another) and smaller, panel-less cubicles.

So as workers forego their privacy, audibly and visibly, how can they get any work done, let alone increase their productivity? Moreover, how can introverts—those who by nature are energized by solitude—really produce in open workspaces?

At TED2012, author and self-identified introvert Susan Cain gave a passionate talk aiding the argument that today’s office design must still support contemplation and individual work. Cain acknowledged the value of serendipitous interactions that occur in workplace cafés and the like. Yet, since introverts comprise up to a half of society, she also contended that the workplace must consider their unique needs.

Even as an extrovert, I understand Cain’s point of view. Still, the privacy I require to write this post, for instance, runs counter to my clients’ cries for designing collaboration-driven workplaces. How can two opposing ideas—the need for collaboration and the need for privacy—be realized in a single design solution? One word: choice. Additionally, choice can be demonstrated in both the physical and cultural aspects of an organization’s work environment.

Having ample space for contemplation, collaboration, and casual collisions presents workers with critical choices. In other words, the physical workplace that offers many diverse settings for a variety of work needs is one answer. 

At our company, an architecture and design enterprise, teamwork is tantamount to optimal performance. Accordingly, at our headquarters office in Milwaukee, we provide one private meeting space for every eight staff members. Additionally, we have several open spaces where more casual collaborations can occur, including a café, kitchen, and library, as well as wide corridors with alcoves. Many of the private spaces can be reserved, whether for group or individual work, while others are left open for immediate access. This combination of spaces provides plenty of opportunities for our numerous introverts (along with “situational introverts” such as myself) to retreat from noise and other distractions.

An organization’s cultural environment can also help meet workers’ individual needs for privacy. A culture that allows or even encourages employees to work off site when needed is one such example. Moreover, new technologies, such as video or Web conferencing, can support workers who want to work with more privacy off site yet still be accessible to others. A culture built on trust between leadership and employees is also important.

According to the 2012 State of the Industry Report by CoreNet Global, a corporate real estate association, the continuing demand for the workplace is to serve as a central place for collaboration. Similarly, The Smart Workplace in 2030, a report by global manufacturer Johnson Controls, predicts that the permanent physical location of work will be “The Hive,” a more agile workplace that responds to “a complex and competitive world focused on collaboration, innovation, and creativity.”

As long as leaders pay attention to workers’ diverse needs for collaboration and privacy, the future of workplace design looks bright. And now that my work here is done, I can relinquish the privacy of this conference room … and reconnect with my colleagues in our open workspace.


Savannah College of Art and Design: Hidden Haven

The warehouse had been built into a bluff over-looking the Port of Savannah, so the team made the most of the locale and turned old shipping doors into large expanses of windows to bring in the scenery and the sunshine. They also set up collaborative furniture arrangements, created a large presentation room for students to show work, upgraded technology and included an open, multifunctional room that can serve as a gallery or discussion area.

HiddenHaven_Adler1 HiddenHaven_Adler2