Like most ways of being, introversion or extroversion (properly, extraversion) is not absolute. Yet people tend to form an identity around this label, ostracizing the other for being too outgoing in the case of extroverts, or too quiet in the case of introverts.
Introversion is also often confused with shyness, but shyness is just a fear of social judgement. Introverts don’t necessarily want to be alone. They might simply prefer a small, intimate gathering with people they know well. Our personality type doesn’t refer to our affability, but rather determines and explains how we react to stimuli. Extroverts crave social stimulation, while introverts are at their best in quieter situations.
So who makes the better employee? Is it someone who is more outgoing or more contemplative? What about the impact of personality on leadership roles? Let’s take a look at the latest research to see which type performs better at work, and how managers can bring out the best in each employee.
This article in Scientific American begins by posing the question, which of the following are signs of introversion?
– Highly sensitive
– Reflective & Introspective
– Socially Anxious & Defensive
– Always prefers solitude over social interaction
The answer? None.
This exploration all dates back to Carl Jung, who defined introversion as “inwardly directed psychic energy”. Many people think of introverts as being introspective, but that trait has to do with their intellect and imagination. Likewise, a person’s particular sensitivity is also not connected with how they rate on the introvert/extrovert spectrum.
Scientists now believe that introverts, “are not necessarily turned inward; rather, they are less engaged, motivated, and energized by the possibilities for reward that surround them. Hence, they talk less, are less driven, and experience less enthusiasm.”
Whether someone is an introvert or extrovert is based on rewards. In the case of extroverts, that reward is the desire for social attention often linked to money, power, and personal alliances. Some research suggests that extroverts have simply just developed a “high-intensity strategy for gaining social attention”.
This insightful video from ASAP Science explains the main differences between the two types:
1) Brain scans show a thicker prefrontal cortex in introverts, associated with deeper thought and planning versus the extrovert’s tendency to be impulsive. (Perhaps that’s why I shocked my introverted family one night while vacationing in Thailand, when I spontaneously announced that I would be getting a tattoo after dinner).
2) Introverts don’t require as much social interaction to feel good as extroverts, and they don’t feel as much excitement from winning or risk-taking.
3) Our society has an extroversion bias, where qualities like “putting yourself out there” are highly valued. Group work is also a more common structure in schools and workplaces, based on the idea that creativity is sourced from more social environments.
4) Introverts may make better public speakers as they tend to thoroughly think through ideas as opposed to making rash decisions.
In western society, extroversion is celebrated. The outgoing and enthusiastic nature of a person who gets things done and is a great communicator is considered an asset. Much of our public life is dominated by extroverts. In fact we’re living in an “extrovert ideal”, in a University of North Carolina study, it was found that 96% of managers and executives display extroverted characteristics.
But a new study from researchers at the University of Chicago, and Harvard and Stanford Universities, found that introverted chief executives make better leaders. The study used linguistic analysis to sort over four-thousand CEOs of publicly traded US companies into five broad personality traits, known by psychologists as The Big Five. Those traits are agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion (versus introversion), neuroticism (versus emotional stability), and openness to experience.
The preliminary results? Introverted CEOs outperformed companies ran by extroverts. Steven Kaplan, a co-author of the study explained one of the main reasons for this finding. Kaplan shares that when companies are in trouble, they often seek out a big personality. That person – for example Rob Johnson at J.C. Penney or Bob Nardelli at Home Depot – then gets blamed when they can’t turn the ship around.
As with other factors influencing success, managers have to find the right role for the right personality and skill set. For example, software engineers need tremendous focus and often have their heads down coding all day. That role may be tailored better for introverts, but that’s not to say that an extrovert can’t be a great programmer. Likewise, an introvert may be quite skilled at an outward facing role like sales, but that may also find their work unrewarding and energetically draining in then long term.
The influence of one personality type over the other, also depends on existing team dynamics. According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, extroverts tend to be an energizing force in an already agreeable group. However, when there is a lot of disagreement, extroverts tend to cause more conflict. They are often seen as sharing their opinions in a domineering and aggressive manner.
So who makes a better employee? It may just be the ambivert (a mix of both introversion and extroversion). As stated in the first paragraph, one’s personality type is not absolute, but rather exists upon a spectrum. According to this article by Elizabeth Bernstein, social psychologists and behavioral scientists now believe that the adaptability of the ambivert may provide some personal and professional advantages.
A 2013 study of ambiverts, published in Psychological Science, looked at 340 call-center employees who answered a personality test to determine their type. Over a three month period, the best performing employees were ambiverts. Their average revenue per hour was $208, compared with $138 per hour for those employees who were either introverts or extroverts.
And it turns out that our methods for recuperating from work aren’t all that different either. A 2015 study was conducted by the BBC, along with researchers in disciplines ranging from cognitive neuroscience to anthropology. That study of 18,000 people in 134 countries rated the ten most restful activities as those often carried out alone. Social activities like meeting friends at a bar placed lower in the rankings. Extroverts as well as introverts found alone time to be more restful than being in the company of others.
A manager can harness the power of an introverted or extroverted employee by engaging them in a way that suits their personality. For this and other examples of how the two types differ at work, you can watch Susan Cain’s TED talk The Power of Introverts. Cain believes that team-working is not always beneficial to an introverted worker – they need space to develop their own ideas, whereas extroverts thrive in an environment where they can bounce ideas off others.
But because extroverts sometimes invest energy in more social activities, they may falter at accomplishing goals or taking the time for imaginative reflection and introspection. Managers can create more goal-oriented processes, where incremental progress is measured and the causes of failure or success are explored.
And for those managing introverts, they may find that those employees prefer limited interaction. Here are some questions from The Great eBook of Employee Questions, designed to enroll everyone in the conversation without creating discomfort:
1) When do you thrive the most, when you collaborate with other team-members or when you have time by yourself?
Introverts are not necessarily shy, they often have a preference for space to develop their own ideas. Managers can use this question as a litmus test and then harness the power of each employee by engaging them in a way that suits their personality.
2) Who do you want to get to know better in the company? Tag them here for a coffee or virtual coffee date.
No, you can’t just run to your desk and put your headphones on. Let’s push your edges a bit so that we can create some cross-team camaraderie.
3) Was there a recent team discussion or meeting where you did not get to share your thoughts? Share them here now…
Introverts tend to need more time to think through an idea and they often get interrupted or out-shouted by extroverts on the team. Asking this question in written form, with time to answer, allows managers to shine a light on their employee’s hidden genius.
David is Content Guy at 15Five, a lightweight weekly check-in that delivers a full suite of integrated tools – including continuous employee feedback, OKRs, pulse surveys, and peer recognition. David’s articles on talent management have appeared in TNW, TalentCulture, and Startups.co. Follow him @davidmizne.
Where do you sit on the spectrum? Are you an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert? Is your personality type an asset or liability at work? Leave us a note in the comments below: