In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain included a chapter about collaboration and creativity that I found particularly interesting.
The author mentions a series of studies conducted by the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at the University of California, Berkeley, on the nature of creativity that found that the more creative people tended to be socially poised introverts. They were interpersonally skilled but “not of an especially sociable or participative temperament.” They described themselves as independent and individualistic.
These findings suggest that in a group of people who have been extremely creative throughout their lifetimes, we’re likely to find a lot of introverts. Why is that? According to Susan Cain, among other possible explanations, there’s a less obvious, yet surprisingly powerful one, for introverts’ creative advantage: introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation.
As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck once observed, introversion “concentrates the mind on the tasks in hand, and prevents the dissipation of energy on social and … (others) matters unrelated to work.” In other words, if you’re in the backyard sitting under a tree while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, you’re more likely to have an apple fall on your head. (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts. William Wordsworth described him as “A mind forever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought alone.”)
If this is true—if solitude is an important key to creativity—then we might all want to develop a taste for it. We’d want to teach our kids to work independently. We’d want to give employees plenty of privacy and autonomy.
But the way we organize our workplaces tells a very different story. It’s the story of what the author calls “the New Groupthink”, a phenomenon that has the potential to stifle productivity at work.
Susan Cain explains:
The New Groupthink elevates teamwork above all else. It insists that creativity and intellectual achievement come from a gregarious place. It has many powerful advocates. “Innovation—the heart of the knowledge economy— is fundamentally social,” writes the prominent journalist Malcolm Gladwell. “None of us is as smart as all of us,” declares the organizational consultant Warren Bennis, in his book Organizing Genius,
The New Groupthink is embraced by many corporations and most high-level managers believe that teams are the key to success.
Some teams are virtual, working together from remote locations, but others demand a tremendous amount of face-to-face interaction, in the form of team-building exercises and retreats, shared online calendars that announce employees’ availability for meetings, and physical workplaces that afford little privacy. Today’s employees inhabit open office plans, in which no one has a room of his or her own, the only walls are the ones holding up the building, and senior executives operate from the center of the boundary-less floor along with everyone else.
Open-source creators didn’t share office space
The mighty force that pulled the ideas of cooperative learning, corporate teamwork, and open office plans together was the rise of the World Wide Web.
On the Internet, wonderful creations like Linux, the open-source operating system or Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, were produced via shared brainpower.
These collective productions, exponentially greater than the sum of their parts, were so awe-inspiring that we came to revere the hive mind, the wisdom of crowds, the miracle of crowdsourcing. Collaboration became a sacred concept—the key multiplier for success.
But then we took things a step further than the facts called for. We came to value transparency and to knock down walls—not only online but also in person. We failed to realize that what makes sense for the asynchronous, relatively anonymous interactions of the Internet might not work as well inside the face-to- face, politically charged, acoustically noisy confines of an open-plan office. Instead of distinguishing between online and in-person interaction, we used the lessons of one to inform our thinking about the other.
The Internet’s role in promoting face-to-face group work is especially ironic because the early Web was a medium that enabled bands of often introverted individualists … to come together to subvert and transcend the usual ways of problem-solving. A significant majority of the earliest computer enthusiasts were introverts…
But the earliest open-source creators didn’t share office space—often they didn’t even live in the same country. Their collaborations took place largely in the ether. This is not an insignificant detail. If you had gathered the same people who created Linux, installed them in a giant conference room for a year, and asked them to devise a new operating system, it’s doubtful that anything so revolutionary would have occurred.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic many organizations were beginning to understand the value of silence and solitude. Many were already creating “flexible” open plans that offer a mix of solo workspaces, quiet zones, casual meeting areas, reading rooms, computer hubs, and even “streets” where people can chat casually with each other without interrupting others’ workflow.
It will be interesting to see in the next few years whether the experience produced by the forced increase of remote collaboration during the COVID-19 pandemic and the concerns with the health of the employees will also directly or indirectly promote a work environment that better accommodate the needs of creative introverts.