Yang: Introversion Is Not Taught In Business Schools

Los Alamos

In fact, introversion is deliberately marginalized at business schools. One Harvard Business School (HBS) professor once said, “If a student talks often and forcefully, then he’s a player; if he doesn’t, he’s on the margin.” 

At HBS, the culture is all about pursuing the extrovert dream: being forthright, being vocal, being a team player (or at least seen as such until seizing the opportunity to dominate the team), being outgoing, and acting confidently at all costs, or at least, seemingly so. 

Extroverts thrive in such an environment. The majority of introverts have managed to adapt to extroverts’ world, but at the end of the day, they are exhausted. 

Here are a few other tips for HBS students – and most likely for students at other B schools: (from Susan Cain’s Quiet)

  • “If you are preparing alone for class, then you’re doing it wrong. Nothing at HBS is intended to be done alone.”
  • “Speak with conviction. Even if you believe something only 55 percent, say it as if you believe it 100 percent.”
  • “Don’t think about the perfect answer. It’s better to get out there and say something than to never get your voice in.”

What’s your reaction upon reading these points? Regardless whether they are for extroverts or introverts, I find both the tenor and the substance disturbing. While there isn’t a “perfect” answer in social world – reality, after all, is socially constructed – saying something as if it’s 100 percent factual/right is tantamount to espousing ideology.  Not only there is no trace of humility in the above tips, it’s frowned upon if one doesn’t voice something, anything.

As for working alone? The bulk of great inventions and innovations has been done by individuals working alone. Imagine Newton wrestling with the newly discovered laws of “gravity” with three other scientists over tea! Or Cavendish, who in 1797 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Cavendish used apparatus so exquisitely sensitive it could measure the force of gravity between small objects – including himself, so he used telescopes to read the forces remotely.

Exchanging ideas through publications or over the Internet is a profoundly different experience from sitting in the same room with 10 other people vying to come up with brilliant breakthroughs. 

There is a fine line for leaders to act and speak confidently when facing uncertainty and to behave as if they have the ultimate answers to everything. In the former, a wise leader with humility would listen to others’ points of views and ideas. In the latter, the presumptuous leader thinks he cannot be wrong and therefore has little need for others’ input.

In this culture, we tend to attribute vocal people as having better ideas. The louder they speak, the more attention they command. One of Cain’s observations resonates with me strongly: Assuming vocal people have the same number of ideas, both good and bad, as quiet ones, by giving more attention to the vocal people’s ideas, by definition, we bias our choices of ideas to execute with the bad ideas of the vocal contributors, at the expense of the good ideas that could have come from the quieter contributors had we the wit to listen.

In a simulation exercise at HBS, teams (of course) have to prioritize items in a survival kit after a crash landing in order to get through the days in the wilderness. In one class, one of the teams actually had a member who had extensive training and experience in backcountry travel. It turned out that what he recommended was exactly what the answers called for. Did his team value this member’s expertise? Of course not. Why? Because his voice was too soft!

Given our repeated history of financial meltdowns, accounting frauds, housing debacles, downright management disasters – largely engineered by supposedly stellar B schools grads – it’s maddening that we are still enamored with MABs from top tiered schools. What’s that definition of insanity? “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” (And here we thought, hoped, our business schools were teaching our future leaders how to be right, while instead they were taught that being right doesn’t matter. Enron 2, here we come.) 

We can’t afford to wait for the business schools to wake up and teach the core of true leadership, that being, how to distinguish between the right answer from the loudest one. So, if you have the power to do something differently and to honor a true diversity of different minds, what would you do?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.