Feedback, Inclusion, and Permission to Be Yourself: Q&A with Susan Cain (Part 2)

February 23, 2017 Sarah Payne

Susan Cain

In part one of our Q&A with author and WorkHuman speaker Susan Cain, we talked about the misconception that introverts are not as ambitious or as inspiring as leaders. If we think about coaching and managing quieter people, what are the best ways to deliver feedback for continuous growth?

These are a few of the questions we asked Cain in part two of our Q&A below. She also shares her unique perspective on what it means to create a more human workplace. If you’d prefer to listen to the interview, listen to the second episode of WorkHuman Radio by clicking the play button at the top of this post (missed the first episode? check it out here).



Continuous feedback and conversations is a growing trend in the workplace. How do you see this playing out for different personality types, both on the giving and receiving end of feedback?

I really like Kim Scott’s model of Radical Candor, which is about fostering a workplace culture where people speak to each other openly about what went well, what didn’t go well, and so on. But she makes the point that Radical Candor is not the same thing as brutal honesty. To do Radical Candor well, you have to continually be showing how much you care about the people you’re working with because if they know that you care about them, it’s a lot easier to hear the bad along with the good.

Kim talks about how people who are not practicing Radical Candor go in one of two directions. One is they are too aggressive and uncaring. Many introverts fall into the other category of Ruinous Empathy, when you relate so much to the other person or you’re so worried about hurting their feelings that you don’t tell them what you need to tell them, and that ends up becoming an unkindness in and of itself. We have also found that talking about these ideas in a positive way makes it easier to give that feedback because everybody has a shared language for it. We can say to each other, “OK, I’m having a Radical Candor moment now,” or, “I see us sliding into Ruinous Empathy, so let’s not do that.” It becomes a shared joke and a shared language.


Extroverts are often perceived as more successful because they’re more apt to speak up and sell their ideas. Do you think crowdsourced feedback, when it comes from everyone in an organization, could paint a better picture of the strengths of both introverts and extroverts? 

Yes, I do, and I’ve seen companies play with this idea. There’s one company, Right Solutions, whose founder had come from another company where, if you had an idea you wanted the company to pursue, you had to present it before a Murder Board. It was the job of the Murder Board to kill your idea if it wasn’t good enough or if they didn’t approve of it. They observed that process routinely rewarded not just the extroverts, but also the people who are comfortable in a little bit of drama and showmanship.


It sounds scary.

It wasn’t about gathering the best ideas at all. When they got to the new company, they instituted an online stock market in which every employee was given shares. Anybody who had an idea or a research project they wanted the company to pursue could put it forth in this stock market. Everybody could vote it up and down with their shares, and vote whether they wanted to work on it or not. They ended up getting ideas from all different people who they normally wouldn’t have heard from. I’m a big believer in that.


Companies are focused on creating more inclusive work environments. What advice would you give people who want to make their workplaces more inclusive of varying personality types?

I think a lot of this is about getting these ideas out there and talked about. Make personality differences and preferences part of everyday conversation. The problem we’ve had until now is people haven’t had a language for talking about differences. For example, someone might say, “I know I’m going to get my best work done if I can put my head down and focus for a few hours and go into a state of flow.” That’s one worker’s preference. But their co-worker’s preference is, “When I’m working on a project, I really want to be checking in with my co-workers regularly so that I know what they’re thinking and can bounce ideas off of them.”

What we’ve found in conventional workplace cultures is that these preferences are seen as not legitimate. Making different requests is seen as not being a team player. We’re big believers in getting these ideas out into the forefront. One of the ways we’ve been doing that is through Quiet Ambassador programs within different workplaces. We started with LinkedIn and we’ve been helping companies identify people within the company who are passionate about these ideas. We train them and coach them in these ideas and then they go forth into their teams and into their organization to get people talking about this stuff so that it grows organically and it becomes part of everyday life. I believe that’s the way to do it.


Can you talk a bit about Quiet Revolution?

Quiet Revolution is a company I founded after my book came out. I had intended to immediately go forth and write another book on a different topic. But I found there was such a hunger, especially in the workplace, to know what to do with these ideas. People wanted to know how to use these ideas to improve the culture and engagement and morale in their workplaces. So we created Quiet Revolution and are working with lots of companies to do exactly that.

We’re most excited about the Quiet Ambassador program that I was just describing and it’s growing wildly, especially in Silicon Valley, but beyond as well. It’s really exciting. We’re finding that the people who serve as Quiet Ambassadors within their company are not only affecting change, but they’re also using that experience to establish themselves as leaders. They’re going to their teams and saying, “Let’s re-think how we’re doing our team meeting. Let’s get our team talking about what it needs.” And suddenly, they become the go-to people on their teams who are improving people’s everyday experience of work. So it’s a virtuous cycle and it’s really exciting.


It improves everybody’s work experience because, like you wrote in your book, there are way more introverts than people expect.

I’ve gone and spoken now at so many companies and universities, and so often leaders of these organizations will tell me they are introverts, too, and you would not necessarily have guessed it. Many introverts feel it is not always acceptable to identify themselves that way. But, they’re everywhere. Statistics tell us it is one out of every two or three people on the planet, so that’s a lot of people.


I recently told someone I was an introvert and they were shocked, like it’s a bad thing.

I think some of that comes from the perception that the word introvert implies a hermit living on the edge of the forest or something. But we’re really talking about up to half the population.

In fact, I would say the word that I hear most frequently from people who have either read the book or have gone to Quiet Revolution experience, is the word permission. I now have permission to be myself and paradoxically, once I grant myself that permission, I’m now much more effective in my so-called extroverted roles because now I’m going and delivering a speech or a sales presentation or that job interview, and I’m doing it from a place of personal power instead of feeling there’s something fundamentally wrong here.


How would you define a more human workplace? 

I believe fundamentally a more human workplace is one that is kind, that acknowledges that people come in all different shapes, sizes, stripes, and personality styles. That people bring all kinds of stuff with them when they come to work and that people want to do work that matters.


I love what you guys are doing because I know you’re coming at your work from that perspective and I also think you’re part of a growing cultural trend that recognizes not only the moral value of looking at things this way, but even the bottom-line value. So these edges are no longer being seen as squishy. I think people get that they actually matter and they make a difference.

Feedback, Inclusion, and Permission to Be Yourself @susancain #workhuman
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