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Lessons in leadership: How introverts and extroverts can both make their mark


Kenexa's Matt O' Sullivan discusses how all personality types can make great leaders.

Introversion/extroversion is probably the most well-known of the personality traits. It was first proposed by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist in the early 20th century [1] and since then, it has been central to practically every personality profile. However, despite its prominence, there is a great deal of misunderstanding and bias that surround it. You often hear that introversion means you are shy and lack confidence and extroversion means you are assertive and outgoing. You may believe that introverts are quiet and need to start speaking up if they are to get ahead, whereas extroverts don’t listen and just want to get their own way. The truth is far more fascinating.

Misunderstandings about introversion/extroversion have important implications for our workplaces, as well as our schools and families. This article attempts to set the record straight. At a fundamental level, it is commonly agreed that this trait is about ‘where we get our energy from’ – either from the external environment (extroversion) or from our internal thoughts (introversion). Furthermore, Psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested that it also involves the underlying need for excitement [2]; the introvert being aroused by low levels of stimulus and the extrovert by high levels. This explains the extrovert’s suggested tendency to seek interaction and undertake riskier activities. In fact, introversion/extroversion is not necessarily about confidence, assertiveness or decisiveness. While there may be some relationship between extroversion and these traits, depending on the personality instrument you are using, being an extrovert does not necessarily mean you are assertive or confident (and vice versa).

In most personality models, introversion/extroversion are names for two ends of a scale with most people lying somewhere in the middle. Most of us are likely to be only ‘slightly’ introverted or extroverted, so our behaviour and energy depends on the situation we find ourselves in. People in the middle are likely to be energised to some extent by external sources (e.g. interacting with different people) and to some extent by internal sources (e.g. contemplating the day at work).

"You may believe that introverts are quiet and need to start speaking up if they are to get ahead, whereas extroverts don’t listen and just want to get their own way. The truth is far more fascinating."

However, there is still a significant minority of people who are ‘highly’ introverted or extroverted; the former preferring contemplation, the latter preferring social interaction. So what does this mean for the workplace? Susan Cain, a leading author on introversion, argues that we need to think differently about how we run workplaces and schools [3], as there is a large bias in Western societies that means rules and structures favour extroverts. You can see this if you step into any open-plan offices or read practically any job advert. We have, over many decades, valued team work and extroverted leaders to the point where we are in danger of ignoring or undermining the strengths and talents the many introverts offer. In essence, introverts have been having to play by the extroverts’ rules.

So what do organisations risk missing out on? Well, by reducing the opportunity and downplaying the importance of individual contemplation, we are at risk of decreasing the contribution many people (introverts in particular) make towards solving difficult work issues and problems. Many creative practitioners argue we are more creative when thinking about problems on our own, rather than in group ‘brainstorming’. Personal development gurus have been preaching the importance of individual contemplation for years but it has not found its way into formal business practice. Susan Cain suggests a balanced approach is needed, which takes into account both preferences so organisations maximise all their talents.

Scheduling time aside specifically for individual contemplation may be one way for us all to get more in tune with our introverted ‘side’. Or we could devise entirely new processes and forums to capture the innovative ideas being generated on an individual basis. Those introverts who, up to this point, have been ‘encouraged’ into group brainstorming might find themselves not only able to contribute some great ideas, but feeling more engaged as a result.

Moreover, we might take this approach a step further. For instance, research has demonstrated that senior leaders are much more likely to be extroverts and generally people feel that extroversion is a very important leadership trait. A recent study from Wharton Business School found that an extroverted leader is not always the most effective [4]. Their study looked at the productivity levels of both proactive and passive employees when led by either extroverted or introverted leaders. They found productivity was highest when introverted leaders led proactive employees and when extroverted leaders led passive employees but productivity was lower when these were reversed. Why? The researchers argue that passive employees need energetic leaders to be energised and proactive employees need thoughtful leaders to give them the freedom to be innovative. Thus, while we recognise the value of ‘different leadership styles’ there is still a prevalent assumption that leaders must be extroverted to be successful and this is not always the case. So what does this mean for the workplace? Critically, we should broaden our thinking of what makes a great leader when it comes to recruiting or promoting. That means considering the group of employees that a particular leader will be managing and where they sit on the extroversion/introversion scale before matching the right introverted or extroverted leader to the leadership role.

Matt O’Sullivan is workforce science consultant for Kenexa, an IBM company

[1] Jung, C. G. (1971). Psychological Types. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

[2] Eysenck, H. J. (1967). The biological basis of personality. Springfield, IL: Thomas Publishing

[3] Cain, Susan, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking,Crown Publishing, Random House, 2013

[4] Stop Stealing the Limelight – the Perils of Extroverted Leadership (article) by Adam M. Grant, Francesca Gino and David A. Hofmann, European Business Review, May – June 2011

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