Unleash your inner introvert

Creating a Thinking Culture:  How to unleash the power of the introvert after lockdown

“The quality of everything we do depends upon the quality of the thinking we do first.” (Nancy Kline)

As lockdown begins to ease and we contemplate if, when and how we return to the office, it’s time to re-think how we work together.  What we decide now will profoundly influence the direction we take in the longer term.  Will we take the easy route and try to maintain the status quo (just with much more remote working than before) or could we contemplate taking ‘the one less traveled by’?

We have the chance to put in place something that’s new for most organisations:  a working culture that genuinely seeks out the thoughts, perspectives and voices of all.

In her article The Rise of the Introvert, Dr Nelisha Wickremasinghe looks at one of the unintended consequences of lockdown:  physical distancing may favour people with a disposition for reflection and focus on the inner world of thoughts, ideas and emotions, over those whose preference is for the external world of other people, action and events.  In Western organisational culture, the characteristics of extraversion – talking a lot, being action-oriented, outgoing, risk-taking, thriving on high stimulation – are routinely prized over quiet, reflection, listening and taking time to think.

In her 2012 book Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain set out the argument for reclaiming the whole of the human personality in the workplace, or as she termed it “the north and south of temperament”.  Is there an opportunity when we all go back to the office to re-balance what we value, harnessing the neglected and much needed capabilities of listening, reflecting and self-awareness?

This particular form of diversity – the innate preferences each of us has for outward or inward orientation, rarely forms part of the public discourse about difference.  And yet it’s fundamental to all of us.  And diversity of thought is what enables successful organisations to innovate, adapt and compete, as well as creating the conditions for inclusion at work.

Dr Wickremasinghe argues that the bias towards external evaluation in our society and our organisations has led to a state of “toxic drive” – behaviour that is achievement oriented in response to threat, as opposed to achievement motivated by the healthy rewards of satisfaction, fulfilment, relationship and purpose.  She points to a characteristic organisational culture that leaves no room for reflection on who or how we are.

Emotions drive behaviour, and Dr Wickremasinghe makes a strong case for the value of noticing and understanding our own emotions at the physical level:  your heartrate, breathing, stomach, skin, nerve endings.  This ability to introspect, name the feelings arising from your emotions, consider the thoughts and assumptions that arise, and use this information to inform our decision-making and our actions in a considered way, is the route to emotional maturity.  She notes that the outward pressure in organisations to “leap from experience to action” actively prevents us from engaging in this mature process.

I’d go even further, and say that the predominant corporate and professional culture fosters a style of communication that cuts short our independent thinking at every turn, in which urgency and interruption trump reflection.  We have created the opposite of what Nancy Kline calls a Thinking Environment ® .  This is bad for all our thinking, our decision-making and our actions.

Dr Wickremasinghe sets out clearly what we need to do to redress the balance in ourselves and our organisations.  The Thinking Environment provides a blueprint for how to do that.

In her seminal book Time to Think, Kline set out what she believes are the key components that need to be in place for people to be able to think independently.  Five elements of these in particular seem most relevant here:

Giving generative attention:  Applying our undivided, unhurried, open attention, focused on genuine interest in what the other person is about to think or say, without interruption.  This includes truly listening until the person has finished.  Not ‘waiting to speak’ or planning my response.

Supporting Equality and Difference:  Treating others as equal thinkers, and allowing equal turns to think.  Suspending judgment and hierarchy.  Valuing difference.

Allowing Emotions and Feelings:  Welcoming awareness of emotions and expression of feelings.  Suppressing these short-circuits our thinking by alerting our brain’s threat mechanism.  Naming and sense-making enables thinking to resume.

Identifying Assumptions:  In our own thinking, and when working in a group or team, asking “What am I assuming that’s limiting my thinking here?”  can help to uncover untrue limiting assumptions.  This is a powerful tool, that can be tailored exactly to fit a specific inquiry or decision-making conversation.  The process here is to identify the assumption that’s blocking or limiting the individual or group, and to examine whether or not it’s true.  Untrue limiting assumptions, once identified, can be replaced with a ‘true (or credible) and liberating assumption’. 

Asking Incisive Questions®:  An incisive question is generated from the ‘true and liberating assumption’, using the construction:  ‘If I knew that ……. what would I do?’.

Embedding these fundamental principles in our team and leadership meetings and conversations is a matter of creating a process that supports good habits.  Here are six habits that could transform our working culture:

  • Introduce the components of the Thinking Environment® as the basis of team interactions. Paying full attention, supporting equality and difference, and offering genuine appreciation that is specific, succinct and sincere.
  • Have all internal meetings incorporate rounds in which each person is invited to speak in turn, ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute.
  • Set a ground rule for ‘not interrupting’. As Kline writes:  “To be interrupted is not good;  to get lucky and not be interrupted is better;  but to know you will not be interrupted enables you truly to think for yourself.”
  • Learn to be a ‘thinking partner’. Create internal ‘thinking partners’ – managers and team members trained in the skills and habits of deep listening and generative attention – to promote independent thinking across the team.
  • Establish ‘thinking pairs’ within or across teams: thinking pairs meet as peer coaches in a thinking environment, in person or virtually for 15 minutes each week, to engage in turns of independent thinking – 5 minutes each to think aloud on a topic of their choice, with full attention, and without interruption or comment.  Kline makes use of the deceptively simple but truly liberating question:  “What would you like to think about, and what are your thoughts?” to ignite thinking.
  • Leaders ask “What do you think?” Every time you catch yourself expressing an opinion, follow it with a question:  “What do you think?”  Suspend judgement while you listen fully and don’t interrupt.

The global pandemic and our responses to it will change the way we work, one way or another.  We should not let this happen without reflection.  Reflection is not the sole province of the introvert, but the qualities that often accompany introversion – inquiry, awareness, patience, thoughtfulness – are the qualities we need to understand the complexities we are faced with.  With care, we might allow this unprecedented global disruption to uncover new ways for working creatively together.  It’s time to question our assumptions about our working culture – how we do what we do together every day.  Wickremasinghe argues for leaders to “make space and time for people to reflect, re-calibrate and recover”.  The rush to react to the easing of lockdown by making fast and far-reaching decisions about working practices, whether that’s reducing office space, digitising work or creating virtual teams, risks losing this rich opportunity to reflect and learn from the experience of lockdown, and finally to put an end to toxic and damaging working cultures.

Truly to unleash the power of the introvert in our organisations would be nothing short of a fundamental social change.  If you’ve taken the trouble to ask the person who hasn’t spoken in a while, ‘What do you think?’, you might have been surprised by the answer.  Perhaps it took the meeting in a different direction, or revealed a new perspective on a decision.  Imagine that amplified across an organisation.

American legal scholar Cass Sunstein writes about what can happen when people’s silent beliefs, values or experience suddenly become spoken, through some catalyst or other, and the amplification of previously unheard voices, which can lead to lasting change if it becomes a new cultural norm.  Perhaps we might experience the creativity of the whole, including those diverse voices that so often go unheard.


Cain, S (2012), Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  Viking

Kline, N (1999), Time to Think:  Listening to Ignite the Human Mind.  Cassell Illustrated

Sunstein, C R (2019), How Change Happens.  The MIT Press

Wickremasinghe, N (2018), Beyond Threat.  Triarchy Press

Wickremasinghe, N (2020), The Rise of the Introvert:  an opportunity to turn from toxic drive to reflective innovation.  The Dialogue Space Review