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How Introverted Leaders and Proactive Followers Make Hay

Harvard researcher provides the skinny on what propels productivity.

With all the recent buzz about introverts, you’d think we were the latest Xbox craze. Despite the longstanding stigmas surrounding introverts, are we suddenly the “in” crowd? Are those of us who listen attentively becoming as accepted—and even embraced—as yesterday’s schmoozers? Maybe not quite yet, but popping up increasingly over the past few years are popular books and major press raising awareness about healthy introversion.

And now this: researchers just found evidence that introverts can excel as leaders. The findings buck the stereotype of introverts as ineffectual wallflowers. Of course, that stereotype seems silly if you think about introverts, including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, the newly appointed Merck CEO Ken Frazier, Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz, and Avon CEO Andrea Jung, at the helm of major organizations.

The word “introvert”—like the word “leader"—has multiple meanings. Some say introverts are normal folks who need to gather their thoughts quietly instead of out loud. So why wouldn’t introverts make effective leaders? Others, who subscribe to the stereotype, dismiss introverts as too socially inept to lead a team. Many equate introversion with shyness. Some define introversion in terms of the absence of extraversion*.

What we can learn from the research findings
To discuss the findings of the research, I reached out to Francesca Gino, Ph.D., associate professor at the Harvard Business School, who conducted the recent research with her colleagues Adam Grant, Ph.D., at Wharton, and Dave Hofmann, Ph.D., at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “We were a little surprised there was all this emphasis about extraverted leaders and how they do well in the workplace,” she says. In fact, according to the research, “in an online survey of over 1,500 senior leaders earning at least six-figure salaries, 65% viewed introversion as a barrier to leadership and only 6% believed that introverts were more effective leaders than extraverts (Jones, 2006).” Adds Gino, “We were curious about situations in which introverts might actually do better.”

The upshot of Gino’s research is that introverts and extraverts can be equally effective as leaders. A lot depends on the match between the personalities of the leaders and the contrasting behaviors of the followers. The researchers found that introverted leaders get better results when they lead proactive followers (whom extraverted leaders can find threatening); and extraverted leaders get better results when they lead passive followers. An important distinguishing feature of the research is that instead of measuring perceptions of the leaders’ effectiveness, it measured quantifiable results (e.g., profits).

For personality type enthusiasts, the studies used Big Five traits from Goldberg’s (1992) adjective scale to define introversion and extraversion. “The extraversion scale included adjectives such as assertive, talkative, bold, introverted (reverse-scored), reserved (reverse-scored), and energetic,” according to the research. Fans of the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® assessment see personality type through a different lens. Based on the work of Carl Jung, the MBTI® tool distinguishes introverts from extraverts based on where they draw their energy (from their quiet time or their social time). I would like to put these distinctions aside for now to see what we can glean from the research.

Can you be authentic, stretch your personality, and reach your goals?
In one of the two studies that made up the research, the leaders were given instructions to inspire them to act more introverted or extraverted, regardless of their natural preferences. Gino argues that it’s not a matter of behaving in ways that make you feel fake or inauthentic. Instead, she says, “It is a matter of understanding one’s context and adapting to it by using a leadership style that is more in line with that of either an introverted or an extraverted leader.”

If what Gino is suggesting appeals to you, what would you do? “Employees and managers should engage in a reflection exercise to understand the context in which they are operating,” she says. She continues, “If as a result of this exercise, I'm a leader with a certain personality and I realize I'm in a context where my followers are proactive and like to suggest new ideas for improvement, then assuming a style that is more in line with an introverted leader would be better for performance. And on the other side, if I realize I'm in a context in which the followers are not proactive and tend not to suggest ideas for improvement, then assuming a style that is more along the lines of an extraverted leader would work better.”

How sustainable it is for introverted leaders to push themselves to act extraverted, and conversely, for extraverted leaders to act introverted when it suits their goals? Gino says that if the introverted leaders go through a self-reflection type of exercise—as did the subjects in her research—and discover that it's easier to encourage their followers to be proactive (e.g., making suggestions, taking initiative) than changing their own style, then it's viable to do so.

“In related research,” she says, “we find that it is hugely important to be authentic in the workplace because it helps your performance and it actually triggers all sorts of good behaviors in employees like being helpful toward colleagues and being proactive.” Gino adds, “So our findings should not be interpreted as suggesting people to be inauthentic because that would not be good for their physical health, their psychological wellbeing as well as their work performance."

But isn’t it inauthentic for an introvert to act extraverted and an extravert to act introverted? “In my research,” Gino explains, “I define inauthenticity as being inconsistent with one’s own true self.” She continues, “So for instance, inauthenticity may result from expressing opinions you don't have or engaging in behaviors you don't feel comfortable with. I wouldn't recommend people doing something that feels fake. But what I would ask them to do is to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and try to work to address them depending on the organizational context." She adds, "You need to remind yourself on a regular basis that's what you are doing explicitly. What might happen over time is that you become more comfortable with the style and it comes by default. But I think it's important to have it on your mind that this is a style you're using because you're in a certain situation."

Gino says that the research provides evidence for a good strategy that leaders can use to facilitate group performance. She asserts that introverted leaders do particularly well when they actively encourage proactive behaviors on the part of their followers. This is because the introverted leaders “are very receptive to the employees’ attempts to voice their ideas and to come up with suggestions to improve the process,” she says. Gino explains that triggering this process and letting the employees know that they’re in an environment where they can suggest their ideas—and they’re not going to be shut down—is an important key to boosting productivity.

“Introverts are more receptive since they tend to listen more than extraverts,” she says. "The fact that they're more receptive is due primarily to their ability and willingness to listen carefully to what others have to say without feeling threatened," she adds. Ultimately, Gino stresses the importance of finding balance in the ways that teams are put together.

For a comprehensive summary of the research, see “Introverts: The Best Leaders for Proactive Employees,” by Carmen Nobel in the Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge newsletter and “Analyzing Effective Leaders: Why Extraverts Are Not Always the Most Successful Bosses,” in Knowledge@Wharton. Can’t get enough about this research? Check out this video interview with Gino.

*Also spelled "extroversion," the more popular spelling; “extraversion” is used by Carl Jung and the communities of the MBTI® and other personality assessments such as the Five Factor Model.

Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, David Hofmann, “Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity,” Academy of Management Journal.

Copyright 2010 © Nancy Ancowitz