Does being an introvert hamper your chances of making senior management?

Leaders don’t always have to be loud and bombastic. There is value in being an introvert, says Dr Jacqueline Baxter, a management professor at The Open University Business School.

There have been countless articles on extroversion and its links to senior management. One article showed 98% of top executives scoring high or very high on the Briggs Myers scale, the most common test used to evaluate your tendency to extroversion/introversion. But does being an introvert hamper your chances of making senior management?

Introverts and management

The traits of extroversion and introversion, first introduced by the famous psychologist Carl Jung, are generally characterised by extroverts’ garrulous outgoing and energetic behaviours, whereas introverted characters are more likely to be calm, reflective and often prefer the written to the spoken medium.

According to research, introverts bring a great deal to the table: they are generally willing to let their teams take credit for innovations and have not been found to be so motivated by money and power as extroverts, taking the long view, which is great for fulfilling long-term strategy.

They are also more likely to appreciate fellow introverts, and ambiverts (those that fall in the middle of the extrovert/introvert continuum). This is pretty important given that around 50% of the population tend to be introverts.

Better leaders?

The perception that extroverted individuals make better leaders is influenced by the fact that there are more extroverts in leadership positions, combined with the fact that extroverts are much more likely to tell you how good they are.

They are better at thinking on the spur of the moment and react quickly to on-the-spot questions often thriving in meetings and other forums where they are likely to be noticed and earmarked for promotion.

Research has found that extroverts’ positive outlook can make them more resilient to stress and more likely to bounce back from failure, both prized qualities in senior leaders.

Psychologist, Robert McCrae created a map of the world, showing the extent to which different countries favour introverted or extroverted qualities. Asian /oriental societies erred on the side of favouring introverted qualities in their leaders whilst Western cultures revealed the direct opposite.

Recruitment conundrum

Although it is generally accepted that recruitment in your own image is not the best strategy for leaders, all too often this is the case. Given the disproportionately high numbers of extroverted senior executives, this might explain their domination of the senior management levels.

In addition, some research indicates that  21% of extrovert leaders at senior and middle levels believe that extroverts make better senior leaders, and the percentage rises to 33% of ambivert leaders who believe this.

We’ve moved on since the days of Dale Carnegie

According to Susan Cain, who has looked at the history of introversion in her book, ‘Quiet leadership,’ the beginnings of the extrovert ideal in senior management came from the development of ‘the cult of personality,’ which began with Dale Carnegie in the US, way back in the early 1900s, when he sowed the first seeds of his now famous public speaking course.

The subsequent seismic shift in the ideals for leadership, resulted in a new set of qualities that added up to create the extrovert ideal, negating formerly prized values such as duty, morals and manners that had dominated public thoughts about the successful individual, replacing them with qualities such as: magnetic, forceful, energetic and have continued to do so.

Because of this, recruiters often imagine that an introvert would be poor at public speaking, be a poor networker, and lack the confidence to put their own opinions forward. Successful introverted leaders such as Bill Gates and Andrea Huffington prove that this is far from the case.

Extroverted skills may not come naturally, but they can be learned, as Dale Carnegie proved. In terms of networking, with great observation skills and natural ability to really listen to people, introverts can quickly establish interpersonal resonance and trust-sharing information in a one-to-one conversation. A very useful ability for leaders.

Business leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to predict if their business models will still be fit for purpose in three or five years time and the thoughtful qualities of the introvert can help them to more effectively scenario plan.In addition, introverts are more likely to value both introvert and extroverted skills on their team, giving both, opportunities to thrive.

With this in mind, it is probably high time we abandoned the extrovert ideal of senior management and looked at recruiting for different skills, those aligned more closely to introversion, or find ourselves stuck with an extrovert ideal of senior management, that may have had currency in Carnegie’s time, but is no longer fit for purpose in the business world of today.

Dr Jacqueline Baxter is professor of public policy and management at The Open University Business School

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