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Mar 18, 2014

Action versus thinking

Making the case for introverts in an era where we need more behind-the-scenes thinking

By Dave Crisp

Action versus thinking?

The answer should be obvious. It’s one of those critical challenges where it shouldn’t be either/or but rather both/and. To act without thinking is even worse than thinking without acting. But what seems so easy to say apparently isn’t at all easy to apply. Achieving the best results is going to take integrating both in everything we do.

In her enlightening book, Quiet, Susan Cain discusses how introverts, who enjoy, spend lots of time and get good at thinking, tend to be systematically undervalued — even treated as second class citizens — especially in business. The subtitle, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, spells out her core view. Her main point — introverts prefer to work in their heads (thinking) and extraverts prefer action, engaging people if at all possible to mobilize as soon as possible, perhaps even before really thinking through what's needed.

Extroverts as a whole, she argues, don’t trust introverts — as Shakespeare has Julius Caesar say: Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look, he thinks too much. Caesar turned out to be right when Cassius joined in the assassination plot, but can we really blame that on his thinking too much? Did that indicate the dictator needed people around who just followed orders, lest thinking produce reasons to rebel? Many a CEO probably wishes for that, but just following orders spells a disastrous lack of innovation.

I’d put off reading Cain’s book since I’ve dealt with “the problem” of introversion, as we all seem to see it, all my life, found many ways to turn it into results and, yes, discovered there are advantages. Certainly there are times when I envy those who more easily slide into conversation, make small talk when I don’t seem to be able to and use their slimmest connections with passing acquaintances to develop business or learn interesting stuff I might miss. But I found lots of workarounds, as the book notes many introverts do.

I also discovered, as Cain points out, there are many combinations and shades of personalities that make people unique and labels difficult to apply meaningfully. You can be introverted, but not shy (fearful of interactions), you can be introverted, but highly action-oriented — that’s me. I like to spend time thinking, but when faced with a "just do it" situation, I, too, can go off on a tangent too quickly at times. Making diverse personalities work well together is a key element HR strategy needs to include.

The fact remains we tend to categorize people by latching onto one aspect of their personality and making assumptions about what that means for the whole person — a dangerous and prejudicial way to operate. All too often input is ignored because we just don’t expect that particular person to have anything valuable to add.

On the other side of the thinking-acting puzzle is work by researchers such as professor Marc Hurwitz of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., who runs FliPskills consulting. Hurwitz studies brain process, neuroscience for organizations, a newly emerging, very popular area of enquiry. He points out that creative thinking and critical thinking can’t easily be done at the same time. One requires at least a slightly positive mind set while the other works best with a slightly negative ("prove it to me") mindset typical of most executives most of the time... but not true of everyone all the time.

The key to success is we need to understand our own prejudices and biases and when we need to make an effort to get past them. We need to be able to slip from one orientation to another so we can brainstorm creatively in one meeting, but come back to evaluate our work critically later on, before we run off with too optimistic a plan.

All of which is to say, we need more thinking going on behind the scenes than ever before. We need introverts on our teams who ponder and come back with better ideas or reasons why something won’t work — and we need to listen more carefully when such people contribute, or perhaps better to say, we need to encourage them to jump in when they feel awkward or unwelcome at times, because otherwise we won’t get the thinking elements we need to refine our action plans.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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