Introverts vs extroverts: Who make better leaders?

A recent study suggests that introverted personalities could be the best to hire for leadership roles – but it all comes down to your workforce.

Fifty per cent of the general population is extroverted, but 96% of managers and executives display extroverted personalities, according to a study by the Harvard Business Review.

The study shows that introverted leaders are more suitable to some workplaces than extroverts. Depending on the situation, extroverts’ tendencies to command the centre of attention and be the head of a discussion will affect employee performance either positively or negatively – while the inclination of introverts to show a higher receptivity to suggestions is likely to affect the same workforce in a different way.

It’s all about finding the right compatibility, the research suggests.

According to the study, placing an introvert in a position of leadership is more successful in a dynamic, unpredictable environment, particularly when staff are proactive and offer ideas for business improvement. The study suggested that this behaviour can make extroverted leaders feel “threatened”.

Harvard business school’s field study tested different dynamics in 130 franchises of a US food retailer, and concluded that when workers offered ideas in a franchise with an extroverted leader, profits were 14% lower than average. The franchises which had employees who were not proactive and an extroverted leader had profits which were 16% higher. Personalities were determined by rigorous testing and surveys.

Chris Dunwell, principal of Dunwell Consulting, expressed some scepticism over the relevance of extroversion or introversion to leadership.

“Leadership is not about whether one is extrovert or introvert,” he said. “Leadership is about visioning. You need passion and belief in the vision – an authentic voice. You don't need to be the world's greatest salesman to do that. You need to engage your people, showing them, regardless of their role or seniority, how they can contribute.”

The study also tested university students, manipulating the dynamic within teams by placing researchers in each group. Again, proactive behaviour under an introverted leader led to 28% higher productivity, whereas leaders deemed as extroverts by researchers appeared unreceptive to proactive employees. The introverted leaders’ predisposition to listen to and consider the employees’ suggestions made them feel valued, motivating them to work harder.

The results from Harvard’s research imply that while it is often true that extroverts have excellent traits for leadership and proactive employees make the best workers, they do not necessarily make the best combination.

Ros Cardinal, managing director of Shaping Change, told HC that most organisations do not base their choices of senior staff members on these traits.

“Studies have shown that most organisations favour logical and decisive behaviours in leadership, which are not correlated to extroversion or introversion,” she said. “As a general rule though, extroverts tend to have a higher capacity for sociability and social presence, which are traits often sought after in leaders.”

“Extroversion and Introversion are preferences, not skills, so both types can very effectively “act out” traits of their opposite,” Cardinal added. “In my experience of developing and coaching leaders, I have not observed a preference for extroversion over introversion in the ranks of leaders, and both types bring both strengths and weaknesses to the leadership table.”

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