The Introverted Leader: Is the Workplace Still Biased Towards Extroversion?

On which side of the fence do you sit? Introvert? Extrovert? Or perhaps ambivert?

To remove any doubt from what are overused (and often slightly misunderstood) terms, it’s all about where you draw your energy from. If you gain energy by engaging with others and feel bereft of energy when you are on your own, you are showing traits of being an extrovert. In contrast, an introvert will typically feel energized when doing activities alone and social interactions often sap their energy.

As with any such labels, it’s best to think of this as a sliding scale. As much as we tend to be drawn towards putting ourselves and others in little boxes when it comes to personality types and preferences, our introvert/extrovert tendencies are not always so black and white. Not only do we draw energy from different sources on different days, but we can find our preferences changing as we journey through life.

We recently recorded a Leadership Roundtable podcast episode, exploring this topic from the viewpoint of Vicki Townsley, a facilitator and coach (and self-defined extrovert); and Hazel Greatbatch, Head of Client Delivery for AchieveForum’s EMEA region (and a self-defined introvert).

Here are some of the key talking points.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop Talking’ by Susan Cain gives us plenty of food for thought. This book offers a refreshing take on what makes a good leader; and interestingly, it turns the conversation on its head by focusing on society and listening. This is a far cry from what we have become accustomed to in the world of work – where introverts often report feeling as though they are expected change their personality in order to fit the ‘strong leader’ stereotype. Cain draws attention to the fact that success is increasingly dependent upon collaboration; and collaboration requires specific behaviors that are not necessarily synonymous with society’s stereotypical vision of a successful leader.

Of course there are a number of famous introverted leaders that spring to mind, such as Bill Gates, Ghandi, Warren Buffet and Mark Zuckerberg. But those stories of using an introvert style to truly empower your people is sadly lacking in the less extraordinary end of business and politics. Studies show that the higher up the leadership ladder, the more likely leaders are to be extroverts. Being an introvert can still be seen as a weakness or disadvantage, and there can be an expectation that you need to be ‘extrovert-like’ in order to be successful, especially as a leader.

This bias adds an extra layer of doubt for introverts who are considering moving into leadership positions. Will I enjoy being a leader? Will I live up to expectations? Can I be successful? It acts as an obstacle for recruiters looking for their next senior executive, as it takes more patience and finely tuned listening skills to identify more subtle characteristics.

What leadership strengths are specific to introvert behaviors?

A study conducted by Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist and Wharton professor, found that while extroverted leaders may be viewed as more successful, overall, extrovert and introvert leaders were actually equally successful in terms of team and organisational performance.

He says that introverts are in fact better leaders of proactive teams where people are bringing forward ideas and taking initiatives. In today’s highly competitive world where innovation is business-critical, this is perhaps more relevant than ever.

Strengths to leverage as an introvert in a leadership role:

  • Embracing who you are and focusing on leveraging the strengths you naturally bring as an introvert is important.
  • Stop trying to become ‘more extrovert like’.
  • Acknowledge that some introvert characteristics can actually be your strengths.
  • If you have the ability to listen and show how you value ideas and input from others, your team will feel confident that their views are taken on-board.
  • Allow people to take the initiative without needing to dominate or direct will ensure that your team feels empowered.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of giving and sharing credit.
  • Know how to set yourself up for success, focusing importance and how to prepare accordingly.

Grant has also written a book about the difference between ‘givers’ and ‘takers’. His research shows key themes of ‘takers’ tending to be over confident, squashing others’ ideas, having trouble holding onto talent, taking more unnecessary risks. ‘Givers’, on the other hand, are more likely to develop their teams and ‘lifting others up instead of cutting others down.’ They often miss out on leadership opportunities as they lack the self-promotion needed.

In our world as talent professionals, another aspect to consider is learning styles, and the difference between extroverts and introverts in their preferred ways of learning.  

It’s interesting how learning approaches have changed over time to be representative of workplace environments and to favor group working. Going back to the classroom where we have our first experiences of formal learning, schools have gone from historically working on singles desks in rows, to group working. Children are encouraged to work through ideas and questions within groups rather than individually or 1:1 with the teacher.  This works for extroverts, but it might be a more difficult approach for introverts. We need to consider how we get the most from people by carefully considering and tailoring learning styles, whether it’s at school or in the corporate world.

Time to re-think the leadership ‘ideal’

In many ways, leadership needs to play catch up. Introvert leadership characteristics are often synonymous with inclusive leadership behaviors. Challenging the stereotypical view of a leader help us to create a more balanced workforce where diversity of thought and styles will allow us all to offer the best of ourselves.

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