by Deidre Koppelman, Founder and CEO of PEAR Core Solutions
You did your research into best practices in leadership and performance management and you ensured your managers follow these practices. You carefully assess employees before they’re hired, and you promote those who show the most promise. In doing all of this, is it possible you are overlooking introverts and could this be hurting your bottom line?
Let’s get something out the way: Introverts are not necessarily shy and they don’t all want to be left alone. Extraverts are not all comfortable talking to large crowds and they sometimes want to be left alone. Introverts “gain energy” predominately from within, while extraverts tend to gain their energy from being around others.
What’s an introverted leader?
It’s at this point that most articles related to this subject will point to famous examples of introverted leaders (such as Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi). Great examples, to be sure. However, it seems unlikely that you – as a leader yourself – are likely to associate those names with the people you have in your company right now (or the candidates you consider bringing on board).
- The programmer that is quiet but creative. She may not speak up during the “brainstorming” session, but then she goes back to her desk and creates an incredibly innovative solution that addresses the issue perfectly. Think of what she could do if put in charge of a larger initiative that requires both technology and innovation?
- The seemingly shy mid-level project coordinator that is uncomfortable taking credit for successes, instead timidly pointing to others that helped. Think of how he could (quietly) rally others to his side if put in charge of a project that requires teamwork?
- The quiet, but affable, accounting associate who voluntary set up a full-proof system for tax filing that ensures nobody misplaces a single receipt or integer while saving everyone time. Think of how she could thrive if put in charge of re-designing the entire accounting department’s processes?
You may see these examples, and still wonder if these employees will be able to display “true” leadership traits. This leads us to ask…
But isn’t leadership inextricably linked with extraversion?
Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, describes how the Harvard Business School places extreme value on traits of extraversion, to the point where those who are more introverted may not succeed based in part on their failure to act in an extraverted manner.
Extraverts are overwhelmingly the majority as you go up the leadership ladder, and most leadership skills measured in hiring and performance management processes paint a picture of an extraverted leader. In support, there are numerous studies (including meta-analyses like the one described here) indicating that extraversion predicts leadership effectiveness. However, even studies such as these include findings that extraversion is more likely to predict who will become a leader, not always who will be the best leader.
There are numerous models of leadership that define leaders in various ways, some of which are decidedly more introverted in nature. For example, the democratic leader is open to ideas from all corners, but ultimately still makes a final decision that is based on the best combination of ideas. The servant leader (which is generally a variation on the democratic leader) will lead by example and be open to suggestions, but also “leads from behind,” meaning they let others bask in the limelight.
Different situations require different leadership styles
Research into introvert vs extravert leadership is leading to a growing realization that paying attention to situational leadership needs (different situations calling for different leadership styles) may be a more accurate way to determine if extraversion is called for over introversion.
An article from Harvard Business Review (the publication associated with the extravert-oriented school mentioned above!) describes how the authors conducted two studies of introverted and extraverted leaders.
In a study of a pizza delivery chain, they found:
- extraverted leaders + employees who do not offer ideas = higher profits (+16%)
- extraverted leaders + employees who do offer ideas = lower profits (-14%)
In a separate clinical study (teams folding shirts under different leaders), they found:
- introverted leaders + employees who do offer ideas = higher productivity (+28%)
Their findings suggest the difference comes down to extraverted leaders feeling threatened by (and therefore unreceptive to) suggestions from their employees. Should you change who is in charge? Should you change the employees? Well, before you go that far, a good place to start is with making everyone aware of the situation at play, giving them the tools to understand their own traits and preferences, and encourage them to modify their approach.
Make room for both introverts and extraverts
Strongly introverted employees might be seen as disengaged, while those who are strongly extraverted might be regarded as “talk first, think later” people. We all bring our own opinions about others, and the positive and negative opinions go in both directions. With that in mind, workplace norms favor extraverts over introverts, whether or not we’re talking about determining our future leaders.
You, as a leader in your company, are in a unique position to ensure that the introverts are heard, and their contributions are not overlooked because of their frequently softer delivery. Make your employees aware of the dynamics that can be at play. A good way to do this is to measure and share the personality traits of the team member and teach your employees how to respect and work with that knowledge. How does this work? An example would be if a manager (who is probably extraverted) knows that some of the people on her team are introverted, she can make sure to give them room to speak in meetings. At the same time, she should understand that their reticence to do so – even when given the floor – is not a sign of lack of engagement or intelligence. If everyone is aware of the team dynamics, they can work more effectively with each other and ultimately increase the all-important bottom line!