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Leadership personalities: Introverts vs extroverts in the workplace

Whether you’ve taken a Myers-Briggs Indicator, Insights Discovery, or any other psychometric tests, businesses are often seeking to learn more about the leadership personalities of their employees.  

The introvert-extrovert binary is often considered to represent two ends of the personality spectrum. First popularised by a Swiss psychiatrist in 1921, this binary explained that introverts are directed inwards, seeking autonomy and independence, whilst extroverts direct their interests outwards, seeking union with others. 

But how does this affect us all these years later in twenty-first century workspaces? 

Introverts and extroverts in the workplace 

Susan Cain’s moving account from, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking explores this binary in the context of our society, explaining that ‘introversion and extroversion go to the heart of who a person is: how they work, how they live, how they interact’. However, it’s only recently that conversations around personality types have made their way into the workplace. 

For our future leaders, how can we ensure your employees are operating in their best environments, to ensure peak performance, efficiency and motivation? How do you make introverts comfortable, and how do you get extroverts to listen? 

No doubt, our workplace habits and preferences completely effect the way individuals and organisations function. Whilst extroverts seek out social stimulation, often thriving with office team days and a schedule full of meetings and Teams calls, to introverts, socialising can often drain their energy – they may enjoy social functions and business meetings, but after a while, wish they were home in their pyjamas.  

Social scientist Arthur Brooks describes introverts as ‘cats living in Dogland: underappreciated, uncomfortable, and slightly out of place’. Hence, when the pandemic hit, a side effect of shutting down the world was to turn it into ‘Catland’, at least for a little while.  

But now as our work life has resumed, what can leaders do to create an environment where both introverts and extroverts are appreciated, and what can us cats and dogs learn from one another? 

Understanding the binary 

Extroverts and introverts take different approaches to learning and social processes. Cain claims that ‘introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration’. This often requires them to work alone for long periods, and when they do interact with others, tend to listen more than they speak. 

On the other hand, extroverts tend to thrive in fast-paced settings, stimulated by team collaboration, and tend to possess strong communication skills. Being around other people gives them energy, and they may require external stimulation to keep them motivated.  

Learn from your team 

Whilst for some people it may be pretty clear where they sit on the introversion-extroversion scale, for others it’s a bit trickier to tell. In a world where extroverts are often praised for their gregarious nature and willingness to speak up, many introverts have got pretty good at pretending.  

Many introverts have excellent social and interpersonal skills, capable of acting like extroverts ‘for work they consider important’, says Cain, thus are less identifiable. 

What does this mean for leadership? 

As leaders, encouraging open and direct conversations with your colleagues is important, not just in group settings, but individually, to encourage introverts to share, and allow you to understand people’s workplace habits.   

Try asking questions to your team members like: ‘what does your ideal workday look like?’, ‘are you more efficient working with others or by yourself’, or ‘how much time do you need to gather your thoughts before our meeting?’ Your colleagues’ responses can give you a greater understanding of how they work best, thereby improving wellbeing and driving higher performance. 

Most importantly, talking to your team about how personality drives performance is key. 

“Where a team of too many extroverts can suffer from ego issues, a team of too many introverts can lack a shared team dynamic”

Francesca Gina, Harvard Business School

The extroverted leader 

Gino further examines the dynamics of a team with an extroverted leader. She suggests that working with proactive team members – individuals who take initiative, lead on new or innovative ideas, and champion visions – can often threaten and ‘steal the spotlight’ from an extroverted leader.  

The result, Gino claims, is that extroverted leaders can ‘shoot down suggestions and discourage employees from contributing’. In the same breath, extroverts bring the energy and vision necessary to give a team direction; leaders must ensure they find the right balance and embrace the diversity of their team, to ensure the success of their team and growth of their organisations. 

Putting it into action 

Learning all this information about your team’s preferred working styles and habits is only beneficial if you subsequently galvanise your team into action. What can you do to formulate dynamics that are respectful to everyone? 

Many organisations have capitalised on the remote working legacy, embracing a hybrid working model, which can allow introverts uninterrupted work time that drives their efficiency.  

In Cain’s office for instance, there is a policy of no meetings before 12:30pm, giving people freedom in the morning to work individually, whilst also letting extroverts know there will be time for discussion.  

Whilst organisations may not adopt such niche policies, there’s no doubt that giving your team the flexibility to manage their own workdays can be hugely beneficial. Fortune 500 HR leaders agree; 41% of leaders with the most flexible policies said their productivity had generally increased in the past year. 

How to draw introverts out and how to get extroverts to listen: 

Research shows us that in groups of eight or more people, the ‘highest status’ person will control around 50% of the conversation, leaving some members who hardly speak at all. Encouraging introverts to share is often about making them feel comfortable enough to contribute.  

Sharing the meeting agenda a few days prior, allowing introverts to formulate and prepare their ideas ahead of discussion can be a beneficial way to draw them out, and make sure everyone’s ideas are heard. 

Equally, many companies follow Amazon’s ‘start with silence’ method, where senior executives read printed memos to the team at the start of every meeting, giving people the time to think their ideas through. Alternatively, asking people to write their ideas down on paper and collating them on a whiteboard can encourage introverts to share. 

Extroverts can bring a great deal of enthusiasm and dynamism to meetings, creating momentum for ideas which cannot be overlooked. However, in order for your team meetings to yield the greatest results, you need to hear from everyone. Encouraging the extroverts in your team to listen and reflect on ideas from their quieter peers can bring about this balance.  

The power of self-knowledge in the workplace 

The key to improving the wellbeing of your team and driving performance for your organisation is ultimately understanding yourself – your strengths, your styles of working, and your connection to other people. Can you notice when you feel energised and lit up, or when your energy begins to drain? This self-knowledge is vital but is only the first step. 

As well as deep self-knowledge, we must equip our talent with the skills to communicate these preferences to their teams. While no organisation can be catered to every individual’s needs, it is important to be able to flex, to recognise when others might be struggling, and to empathise. 

By empowering our people with these skills, we create cultures in which the majority can thrive, both introverts and extroverts alike. And when individuals thrive, so do organisations. 

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