Let's think beyond introverted vs extroverted leaders

Friday, March 18, 2016 - 13:34

Are you an introvert?

Are you an extrovert?

Chances are that at some point in your career you have been told that you are one or the other, either in a conversation or through an HR assessment designed to get to the bottom of your personality. There's also no shortage of literature suggesting that the secret to great leadership all boils down to where you sit on this spectrum.

What's missing here is something quite fundamental. It doesn't matter whether you are the life of the party or a quiet wallflower, your ability to lead is more about your team's personality than it is about you.

Challenging the model of the extroverted leader

Perhaps the reason these questions about extroverted vs introverted leaders are so popular is that leaders are almost always extroverts themselves. In fact, research published in the Harvard Business Review found that 96 per cent of managers and supervisors within an organisation are extroverts. What's more, the higher you climb in the company structure, the more extroverted people become.

The dominance of extroverted thinking also has an important impact on the way businesses are structured. From modern open-plan office spaces to meeting and brainstorming sessions, many company practices tend to favour the loudest voice in the room. These issues were cited by Susan Cain in the book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" as one of the key ways in which workplaces favour extroversion.

This angle is routinely missed in the literature between whether great leaders are introverted or extroverted - extroversion is embedded into many organisations, particularly at the management level, which fundamentally affects the culture and dynamics of the office.

Fortunately the solution lies in remembering that being a leader isn't just about how you approach social situations, it is equally about how your team think and where they sit on the extrovert-introvert scale.

Lead in a way that suits your team, not that suits yourself

At a very fundamental level, the problem with the introverted vs extroverted debate is that it assumes you cannot adjust the way you come across around others.

This was cited by further research published in the Harvard Business Review. The authors looked at the reported profits of a pizza restaurant and compared them against the personality types of managers and staff members. The research found the highest profits came from extroverted leaders of introverted teams, while introverted leaders thrived when in charge of extroverted workers.

In fact, teams of introverts led by an extrovert had 16 per cent higher profitability than those led by a fellow introvert. However, when outgoing leaders were in charge of extroverted teams, they actually achieved 14 per cent lower profits.

The takeaway here was that the personality of a leader isn't as important to the profitability of each store. Instead, it was the ability of a leader to complement the natural tendencies of their direct reports that ultimately led to higher performance.

Building a team dynamic that delivers value to the organisation

Clearly the value in being an introverted or extroverted leader is more about the people you are working with than being one or the other. The question is of course, how can this insight be applied in a real-world team environment? 

After all, it's rare for a leader to be totally extroverted or introverted - the two qualities are a scale that everyone sits on. Likewise, a team will be made of a whole range of people who sit at different points on that range, so that the team as a whole can rarely fall at one end of this spectrum or the other.

Ultimately, you'll need to be sure you are tailoring your leadership approach to the people you are working with. This requires investing in your own abilities, through options like a leadership training course, as well as thinking about your own leadership style and the personalities on your team.

Don't worry, you haven't heard the end of being asked whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. But the next time you are posed that question, maybe the best way to respond will be: "Don't ask about me, ask about my team."