When Is Collaboration Constructive and Happy-Making — Even for Those Who Mostly Prefer to Fly Solo?

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Wow. The last post on group work drew a huge number of thoughtful and passionate comments, most of them critical of the process.

But within the criticism, some of you mentioned situations where you do enjoy collaborating, and feel it’s constructive. I thought it would be useful to pinpoint the scenarios when group work works — even for introverts.

For example, Nora wrote this:

I enjoy collaborating when (1) I’m given time to process things before the “brainstorming session” takes place (I love it when a group leader sends the meeting invite several days or weeks in advance), and/or (2) the collaboration is mainly via e-mail or wiki or some other “online” method where the primary mode of communication is writing.

Any other thoughts on when collaboration works? And/or on ways to balance extroverts’ need to think out loud with introverts’ need to fly solo?


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11 Comments

  1. Andy on 19.10.2011 at 15:19 (Reply)

    I enjoy collaborating if I like the people I’m collaborating with, have time to process and think through things alone before I am called on to work with others. I also like it when I collaborate without a goal in mind. I am completely un-effective if we are working towards a presentation or project deadline because I have something inside of me that just gives up if others take control. I am also really bad for taking control myself and taking something home, deciding how I think it should be and then working on it alone. I haven’t read your last post yet so I don’t know if any of these points were picked up on there. I think I’m kind of an all or nothing sort of collaborator - either I lead and get others involved, or others want me involved and I just don’t care that much. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I can’t seem to shake it!

  2. Becky on 19.10.2011 at 16:28 (Reply)

    Collaboration is a delight to me when there is a great deal of structure for it. For example, I was heavily involved in an organization that ran its meetings using a formal consensus process. The process was designed to bring *all* voices into the discussion, not just the loudest or most verbose. People who needed quiet time to think things through on their own got time to do so since nothing could be proposed and agreed-upon at the same meeting (except in case of emergency). Minutes went out in writing, and face-to-face discussion normally was led by a facilitator who kept the process on track and ensured that nobody “took over” the discussion.

    This experience was a revelation to me. It helped me learn how to speak up and become a leader.

    We discussed our work at all levels, from the big mission and goals of our organization to minor procedural details, using this formal model. We always knew *what* the topic up for discussion was, *why* we were discussing it, and *what stage* of the process we were in (Deciding on a specific proposal? Modifying a specific proposal? Determining whether we should take any action at all?).

    I encourage introverts who are intrigued by this to look up “formal consensus.” There are some good resources out there. It feels cumbersome at first, but internalizing these structures within a group opens business and community organizations to the strengths of the quiet and thoughtful among us.

  3. Beth on 19.10.2011 at 18:46 (Reply)

    First off, I love this blog. I am not sure how I came across your wonderful work, but am certainly glad that I did!
    As to the question of group work…when I read that piece the other day I cringed abit, thinking how I am not comfortable with meetings, group work, etc.

    As I read the responses from other readers I realized that I am using these structured formats with my high school students as a tool for successful collaboration. Being able to process thoughtfully is an import concept to teach.
    And for those students who are introverted it provides an avenue for collecting their thoughts and sharing their ideas.

  4. Kristen on 19.10.2011 at 18:51 (Reply)

    I personally like creative or innovative collaboration. Meetings about improving a program or product. Meetings that allow for creative feedback brings out my personal strengths. Looking at the bigger picture. It’s when we get into the everyday, mundane stuff that I get uncomfortable. It just seems so easy to figure those things out on your own. Why call a meeting to figure out what kind of light bulbs we should use in the offices. Just kidding, but that’s how it translates to my innie nature. OH - I have to mention Birthday Parties. OMG, I worked at a place that had them every week and I got yelled at by my boss when I tried to skip out on one.

  5. Bruce on 20.10.2011 at 06:05 (Reply)

    Nora’s comment mirrors my thoughts exactly. I have always considered my problem to be that I cannot process thoughts fast enough when dealing with other people. It is as though the synapses simply do not fire fast enough. I am very intelligent, give me time and I can do just about anything. But in the rough and tumble of the moment my brain cannot process fast enough. I become flustered and that reason perhaps is why working with other people becomes difficult and therefore something to avoid. That is a very unpleasant feeling. So I would enjoy working with other people if not for that.

    As I have tried to figure out what my difficulty is I have thought perhaps it is a fear of ridicule. Does that make sense? Anyone have thoughts about dealing with that?

    1. Christy on 20.10.2011 at 20:00 (Reply)

      Bruce, it’s actually a scientific fact of introvert brains that we have slower reaction times than extraverts because our thoughts follow different neurological pathways. I encourage you to look up some discussions of the studies on it. “The Introvert Advantage” by Dr. Marti Laney discusses these studies to an extent.

  6. Ron on 20.10.2011 at 09:52 (Reply)

    I enjoy collaborating in a group of equals where the task and the necessity of success is paramount. I see this as elevating ideas and devaluing social niceties. Where the group work is “routine” I run into the following:

    I am an introvert that “thinks out loud” that tends to dislike process (get to the point) and small talk. In group meetings when I participate, I almost always step on someone’s sensibilities because I don’t recognize many of the unspoken rules of the group. My normal strategy is to be quiet, which causes thought after thought to pile up. When I finally start to talk it’s typically like a tidal wave and I can overwhelm the group members with my enthusiasm and detailed content (this is normally interpreted as arrogant bullying by many).

    Alternatively, I write down all of my thoughts and only say the one or two “best” ones. This works better for my acceptance in the group, but seems to result in less progress (as my “bullying” tends to accelerate the process). Therefore, I am left with either treating the meeting as a social exercise by being quiet or “bullying” the group to efficiency to my personal detriment.

  7. David C. on 20.10.2011 at 17:38 (Reply)

    Most collaboration efforts I’ve been involved have been less than successful. It always seems that the one with the sharpest elbows pushes everyone else aside. I have been involved in some that were successful though. The key to the success is a strong leader who makes sure everyone involved gets to say their piece.

  8. Susan Cain on 29.10.2011 at 21:29 (Reply)

    Thanks so much, everyone who responded to this post. This past week I gave several talks and I noticed that at the Q and A people asked a lot of questions about collaboration — when it does and doesn’t work for introverts. Will focus more on this subject in the months to come. THANK YOU for your ideas.

  9. […] Recently, I ran a couple of posts asking for your views on group-work and collaboration. You responded with great passion, and great ideas. […]

  10. Carter Gillies on 24.02.2012 at 11:52 (Reply)

    Hi Susan,

    I recently ran across a link to your work and have since listened to some of your talks and read some of your articles. I have been trying to devour your blog as I wait for my copy of your book. But I guess its been about six months that I have been mulling over this issue. I was first introduced to it through links to the Jonathan Rauch articles in The Atlantic on “Caring for your introvert” and “Introverts of the world, unite!” and I am fascinated to think that this discussion has real implications for much needed change in the world.

    As a practicing ceramic artist I have come to understand that my process relies on my introverted tendencies. It may, in fact, even be motivated by them. That is, my drive to make art is an expression of something deeply internal and a mining of the fruits of my imagination.

    Where this often leaves me as an artist is in needing to come up with all the solutions on my own. It is a blessing and a curse. It gives me great authority, but it limits me to what I am capable of only on my own.

    The problem can sometimes be that I DON’T have a solution for a particular problem. My artistic practice, and that of many other creators, is a solitary studio exercise. But when I’m stumped I have occasionally resorted to the collaborative help of other artists. In fact just a few days ago I passed some half finished work to a friend to experiment on, in hopes that she would teach me a new way of seeing what I do.

    Collaboration can get me out of the limitations of my habits and the closed circle of my dreams. Learning what other artists would do is a means of extending possibility in ways that are just not going to happen if left on my own. Its a useful tool for breaking the bonds of my ‘identity’ and creating a new hybrid. Just as any relationship is the creation of something new (and different from our solitude), this collaboration is a valuable means of taking me outside myself.

    I don’t need this ‘help’ very often, but when I do I always appreciate the growth that could not have happened without it. In some ways its similar to the passive input we get when we are inspired by the creativity of others (when we ‘borrow’ or ‘steal’ their ideas). Actively collaborating has the benefits of a fusion where more than one voice determines the outcome. Its somehow more than just a mash-up.

    In most conventional art collaboration does not have a voice, except perhaps in music and other performing arts. Writers often rely on editors. But studio artists have developed a routine where all the polishing and refinement is done by themselves on their own. All the actual work is their own.

    As a visual artist I have always been curious about the flexibility that musicians seem to have. Their limitations seem far less restrictive than my own. They don’t seem to be as protective of their own uniqueness. They can switch genres with ease, and perform within the setting of more than one collection of fellow musicians. They can feed off of what the others are doing in real time. Most visual arts are so far from this freedom. Its each to his/her own. To even think of an artist making a career doing covers is unthinkable.

    In some ways I think the visual arts have made a mistake in giving so much priority to only what an artist can come up with on their own. The visual art industry almost demands us to function only as introspective introverts, and I’m not sure this is necessary or even always a good thing.

    But perhaps this is just a result of how the industry coerces artists for its own benefit, and where branding and the marketplace are setting the tone. Ownership of ideas (you hear the words ‘voice’ and ‘identity’ quite often) is how artists seem to think about the value of what they do, perhaps because its most often how they get paid. But the consequences have far reaching impact, and I’m not necessarily sure its good for introverts, or extroverts either.

    I’d love to hear what you think!

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