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The Introvert’s Worst Nightmare

A new study shows that putting themselves forward can be tough for introverts.

Image Point Fr/Shutterstock
Source: Image Point Fr/Shutterstock

For people high in introversion, life is good when they can sit back and let others take front and center. There are times, however, when introverts are called upon to be the ones in the spotlight. Perhaps they ran for an office in a volunteer group and, much to their surprise, actually won the election. Now they can no longer be the power behind the throne; they actually are forced to sit on that throne. Having succeeded in what perhaps they most wanted to be able to do, which is to have an impact on their organization, they must now figure out how they’re going to occupy the position of prominence that their role requires. They shiver at the thought of being forced to run a meeting, with no choice but to give rousing speeches, oversee the order in which people speak, ask people to volunteer for committees, take on new tasks, and even — worst case scenario — ask for monetary donations.

Queensland University (Australia)’s Andrew Spark and colleagues (2018) investigated the role of “forecasted affect,” or predictions of future feelings, in the emotional lives of people seeking to occupy leadership roles. They reason that for people high in introversion, it’s the thought of having to put themselves out there, rather than the act of taking charge, that most fills them with dread. In the words of the authors, “introverts tend to believe (or ‘forecast’) that acting extraverted will be more unpleasant than it actually is." Needless to say, this can keep them from attempting to achieve positions of leadership, but it can also make their lives miserable when they find themselves with no choice but to occupy those positions.

There’s a reason that people high in introversion could fear being placed in positions of leadership. People high in extraversion, the opposite of introversion, are most likely to be candidates for leadership positions, or what the Australian authors call “emergent leadership.” Leadership is, the authors argue, an essentially “extraverted” task, and even if not all extraverts make great leaders, to be able to get out in front of others and take responsibility for the group’s success means that you have to be willing to be bold and energetic.

Extraverts may have many leadership strengths, but so do introverts. Introverted leaders are more likely to empower those they lead, are less likely to try to dominate those who work for them, and allow for greater communication among team members. As the authors note, introverted people can be great leaders, but their tendency to focus their attention inward rather than outward can stymie them and keep them from taking advantage of the actual strengths they would show in leadership positions. Unfortunately, such attitudes can set up a vicious cycle in which those high in introversion avoid taking on leadership positions, never learning just how effective they could actually be in those roles.

To test their model of introversion's impact on emergent leadership, the Australian team recruited nearly 200 first-year business students for their lab study. Participants completed a measure of personality that assessed their introversion with self-rating items that included shy, withdrawn, bashful, quiet, and (reversed) bold and extraverted. They were then asked to rate their forecasted affect (i.e., how they would feel) if chosen as the leader from among a group of peers while completing a joint problem-solving task. The forecast affect ratings included three positive and five negative feelings. The positive feelings were “strong,” “excited,” and “interested,” and the negative feelings were “fearful," "worried,” “distressed,” “upset,” and “nervous.”

The problem-solving task was a survival scenario developed by NASA, which required the group to develop a strategy that they would need if they were explorers on the surface of the moon. They were to decide, as a group, on the rank order of 15 items that could help them survive, and then to compare their own ratings to those of actual NASA scientists. The purpose of the task was not to determine the actual usefulness of the group’s survival strategy, but rather to see who emerged as leaders in the eyes of group members. This emergent leadership scale was completed by all participants about each other, and it included ratings such as showing leadership, taking charge in conversations, and doing a good job as a leader. Participants also rated each other on whether they would be desirable people to have as leaders if asked to complete the task again.

Imagine yourself now as being in this exercise. Would the prospect of having to organize a group to complete even a fictitious task make you feel excited or upset? Do you think, once in the task, you’d take a back seat and let other people shape the group’s survival strategy and ranking of items? What if you had no choice, and someone forced you to take on the leadership role?

As they predicted, the Australian research team found that people high in introversion indeed regarded with fear and distress the prospect of having to emerge as leaders in the survival task. They were, in turn, less likely to take on a leadership role, as judged by their fellow participants.

It seems that the “worst nightmare” for the highly introverted person is the prospect of being a group leader. This fear and panic can then set the stage for poorer performance once in the actual task. Looking out over the sea of faces behind a podium, whether in front of 10 or 100 people, can lead people high in introversion to focus on their own inner distress rather than on getting through the logistics of the task at hand.

The best advice if your worst introverted nightmare comes through is to give yourself as many props as you can ahead of time to make sure you’ll get the job done. Print out speaker’s notes, a meeting agenda, or a list of points you need to cover if you find yourself an inadvertent leader. Use your introvert's strengths to empower group members to make their own contributions to the enterprise. Once you’ve achieved a measurable degree of success and find that the reality wasn’t as bad as the prospect, you may find it even easier to step out of your comfort zone the next time.

The fulfillment of your goals depends on having certain skill sets, as well as knowing what your skill set actually is to succeed in a given situation. Learning to live with and conquer the introversion that hampers your leadership style may just be a matter of changing your affective forecast away from doom and gloom to a sunnier and more optimistic outlook.


Spark, A., Stansmore, T., & O'Connor, P. (2018). The failure of introverts to emerge as leaders: The role of forecasted affect. Personality and Individual Differences, 12184-88. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.09.026

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