If you are the type to dominate a conversation and you thrive on social interaction, the chances are you are an extrovert. If you’re more reserved and introspective – and the thought of a loud, bustling office leaves you craving quiet and solitude – the chances are you are more introverted.
Although introverts and extroverts are often viewed in terms of two extreme opposites, most people lie somewhere in the middle of the two. In recent years, there has been much debate in popular culture about the advantages and disadvantages extroverts have in the workplace – and in particular, if they are more likely to succeed in the business world.
The prototypical extrovert is usually defined as talkative, outgoing and prefers to take charge, attributes which have long been seen as essential for business. Introverts, on the other hand, are often mistaken as shy or less ambitious – and as a result, face barriers to leadership. According to a Sutton Trust analysis of BBC data, highly extroverted people – those who were more confident, sociable or assertive – had a 25% higher chance of being in a high-earning job (over £40,000 per year), with the odds being higher for men than women.
“In general terms, extraverts – the original term – are favoured because they are verbally responsive, interact more enthusiastically, push themselves forward and exude energy. People often mistake this for a positive personality from someone demonstrating drive and leadership,” says Joanna Rawbone, founder of Flourishing Introverts.
“What isn’t always understood is that extraverts need to behave this way in order to keep their mental batteries charged. If a working environment is not stimulating enough, too quiet, serious or ‘slow’, they will find themselves unable to operate at full potential. Their only option is to start a conversation and get some action going.”
In addition, Rawbone adds, extroverts are the people who often get marked as showing leadership potential when they dominate group discussion tasks at interviews. They are given opportunities as they seem hungry for success.
“Leaders like this are in danger of leaving little space for their followers to shine,” Rawbone says. “But perhaps the biggest challenge occurs when this is the very behaviour that drains the batteries of colleagues. When up to half of the workforce need space and quiet in order to focus and do their best work, the high-energy workplace is counterproductive. Does this demonstrate real diversity and inclusion?”
Last year, a study by the Universities of Toronto and Minnesota found that higher extraversion was desirable many variables in the workplace – including motivation, work-life balance, emotional well-being and performance. Specifically, it was in four categories that extroverts enjoy a distinct advantage; motivational, emotional, interpersonal and performance-related.
However, introverted leaders can be more effective than extroverts in certain circumstances, research has shown. In 2010, University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant, Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and David Hofmann of the University of North Carolina found that it depends on who is being managed.
Putting together extroverted leaders with employees who also take initiative and speak out can lead to friction, they found, while pairing the same group of employees with an introverted leader can be successful.
Grant noted that “extroverted leaders like to be the center of attention, they tend to be threatened by employee proactivity” but introverted leaders were “more likely to listen carefully to suggestions and support employees’ efforts to be proactive.”
So what else can introverts bring to the table in business?
“Introverts typically have a think-say-think communication process so are unlikely to speak out of turn or say things they will regret,” Rawbone says. “This creates a slower pace to their communications which, whilst it might frustrate those who prefer to think out loud, it does create space for people to contribute. Introverts tend to lead from within rather than from the front, so they are good at empowering others.”
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“They are resourceful and independent so are neither needy nor wasteful of other’s time,” she adds. “They are great at assimilating ideas and writing comprehensive reports. Introverts tend to have high self-awareness and their typically above average emotional intelligence (EQ) means they are great observers with a keen sense of how they are impacting others.”
Extroverts are typically quick to come up with ideas and enjoy bouncing around ideas and problem-solving. In contrast, introverts may be more likely to engage in deep thinking and find potential problems before they affect the work. Both are necessary in a workplace environment or in the business world.
“Give them time to research, plan and prepare and you’ll benefit from some of the introverts’ true gifts,” Rawbone adds.