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Why Introverts Can Be Great Leaders

... if you just give them a chance.

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When it comes time to pick a group leader, who are you likely to choose? Would it be one of the people eagerly waving their hands in the air in a meeting or volunteering within seconds from an email invitation? These individuals are probably the same ones who tend to be most outspoken, sociable, and hyped up about an opportunity to be recognized. However, don't let their enthusiasm fool you. It turns out that your best choice of a leader is more likely to be the quiet and reticent person who takes a back seat in public discussions. Researchers are finding that introverts make better leaders than extroverts for one simple reason: they're more likely to listen and pay attention to what other people are saying. It's the introverts you want to choose as leaders, not the extroverts.

As I've discussed in a previous blog posting, introversion is a complex personal trait. To consider everyone who's quiet and a little shy to be an introvert is a great oversimplification. Introversion has several facets. It's not that introverts don't like other people but that they aren't necessarily likely to blow their own horns. The other important fact to consider is that introversion may show up differently in different people depending on their other strong personality characteristics. High conscientiousness plus high introversion are a different combination than low conscientiousness and high introversion.

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Adam Grant was recently interviewed by Dr. Lisa Rosenbaum, a cardiologist at Cornell Medical School, regarding the question of who makes a better physician—the one with the "people skills" who can engage readily in conversation, or the one with a "reticent mind"? At the risk of great oversimplification, the answer is the one who seemingly lacks the gift of the gab. Quieter physicians may actually be the ones who will provide you with better medical care. Why is this? Not necessarily because they're smarter or more knowledgeable, but because they're following instructions, checking symptoms more carefully against diagnoses, and ensuring that they systematically go through proper medical procedures.

Grant based his observations on research he and others have conducted on the personality qualities of effective leaders (Grant et al., 2011). For years, the considered wisdom was that people high in extroversion have the necessary qualities for leadership such as charisma, ability to stimulate excitement, and engagement with their group members. However, researchers now believe that leadership by extroverts may come at significant costs. Like the physicians with a great bedside manner who may fail to take careful stock of the complaints by their patients, extroverted group leaders aren't always attuned to the needs and concerns of their group members. You may be more likely to give an extroverted leader higher satisfaction ratings, but when it comes to effective management, that same person may fail to maximize your group's actual productivity. Group leadership by extroverts can come at a cost.

Extroverted leaders who want their subordinates to be more proactive, engaged, and individually productive may create group members who are, in contrast, passive and nonproductive. According to "dominance complementarity theory," groups get along better when the leaders and group members balance their tendencies to run the show. There is more conflict when an extroverted boss tries to manage a group of proactive employees. This situation, likened to that of "herding cats," will only hamper the group's productivity and sense of harmony.

In addition to allowing their group members to contribute more actively to the success of the group's efforts, introverted leaders spend more time listening and less time talking. Extrapolating from the axiom that "two heads are better than one," this idea suggests that many talking heads are better than one that constantly controls the conversation.

In one study of 57 store managers of a national pizza chain, Grant and his colleagues found that when employees were highly proactive, taking initiative to generate and implement ideas and suggestions for improvement, stores managed by introverts had 14 percent higher weekly profits than stores managed by extroverts. The same pattern was repeated in an experimental study among college students when the measure of proactivity was the number of t-shirts folded by participants trying to win iPod Nanos. When group members were proactive, they were 28 percent more productive under introverted than extroverted leaders in a 10-minute period. The worst performance in both cases involved leaders with low extroversion and passive followers and high extroversion and proactive followers.

The moral of the story is that the personalities of leaders and followers should be in harmony for a group to achieve maximum productivity. However, because groups are most effective when they reflect the efforts of everyone, leaders who draw out the best efforts of their group members will engender the best performance and most likely to allow their members to feel invested in the group's efforts.

Returning to the question of the introverted physician, we can see that the principles regarding the introvert's superiority as a diagnostician could translate to other areas of life. By paying more attention to details, pondering the pros and cons before making a decision, and avoiding impulsive actions, people high in introversion may be the go-to sorts you find yourself relying on for help. A boss who allows you to make your best contributions will also help you feel more intrinsically motivated in your work or schooling. Rather than following the dictates of someone else, you can provide your own direction, and in the process gain greater fulfillment of your own potential.

Here's how you can apply the findings of this important work in your own life:

  1. If you're an extrovert, calm down. You may be naturally effusive, charming, and sociable, but recognize that by running the show, you may be running down the morale of your group members.
  2. If you're an extrovert, learn to listen. Extroverts are interested in other people but they don't always hear what other people have to say. If you've got the gift of the gab, force yourself to be quiet long enough to examine the input you receive from your co-workers, supervisees, students, or friends.
  3. If you're an introvert, take heart. Change in personality is possible at any age. Unless you're miserable with your quiet and reticent style, recognize that it's you who may produce the best results with a group. However, to pull off the introverted leadership style, you need to be matched with proactive employees, or no one will do anything. Think about how you can best use the skills of your group members and draw them out as much as possible.
  4. When you're choosing a leader, take into account the balance among your group members. As the Grant study showed, you'll get the most productivity when the personality of the leader is complementary to the personalities of the group members. If you have someone leading a group who you know is charismatic and powerful, your group will get along better with more passive members. However, a leader who's a diva may turn off the optimum functioning of a group that is ready to be productive on their own.
  5. Don't be swayed by a person's charisma. Make your judgments based on their actual abilities. Remember Grant's advice about physicians. You're better off with someone who is actually competent rather than someone who only radiates confidence.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging.

Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.

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Grant, A. M., Gino, F., & Hofmann, D. A. (2011). Reversing the extraverted leadership advantage: The role of employee proactivity. Academy Of Management Journal, 54(3), 528-550. doi:10.5465/AMJ.2011.61968043

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