Extraversion isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Extraversion has been shown to be important to the perception of leadership.  That is true.  And most of us believe that extraverts are better leaders.  Yet a recent study by Grant, Gino and Introverts are good leaders tooHofmann suggests that there are times when extraversion in a leader might decrease group performance.

So what is extraversion?  It is the tendency to seek out status, to be dominant, outgoing and talkative.  Typically we think of extroverts when we think of leaders.

The research team wondered if follower proactivity/passiveness would impact the effectiveness of a leader’s extroverted style.

What is proactivity?  Proactivity is when employees take advance actions in order to implement organizational change.   Actions such as speaking up or giving voice, taking charge or influencing those above them.

In their first study they measured the results from a nationally franchised pizza delivery service, controlling for location.  They considered whether the local manager was extraverted or introverted, and whether the employees as a group were proactive or passive. They found that “extraverted leadership predicted higher store performance (profits) when employees were passive, but lower store performance when employees were proactive.” (p. 536).

A second experimental study followed, with university students placed into groups, with an assigned leader and followers.  Two of the followers were “confederates” of the researchers.  The students’ task was to fold as many t-shirts as possible in 10 minutes. Leaders of the group read a passage about either extroverted or introverted leaders prior to starting the task.

The confederates (additional followers) were randomly assigned to a passive behaviour, doing nothing or to an active behaviour, suggested a better method of folding.

The results were interesting.  When the confederates were passive, the extraverted leaders groups performed better than when the confederates were proactive.

However, the results reversed themselves for the introverted leaders, that is the groups with introverted leaders performed better when the confederates were proactive, less well when the confederates were passive.

The authors think that the explanation for this behaviour might lie in the theory of complimentary behaviours.  For example, extroverted leaders, who seek the centre of attention and status, might see proactive behaviours as threatening. Introverted leaders might be better listeners and better engaged with group processes.  As a result, employees might believe that the leader is receptive or not receptive to proactive behaviour, changing their performance as a result.

Their research suggests that the perception of leaders receptivity to input might impact motivation and performance.  That is, that leaders who are believed to be high in receptivity tend to have better group performance than leaders who are low in receptivity.  Extraverted leaders were believed to be lower in receptivity to input than introverted leaders.

Why is this important?  Current popular leadership discussions are encouraging both extraverted leadership styles (including theories of charismatic leadership and transformational leadership) and, at the same time, encouraging proactive follower behaviours.  This research suggests that doing both of these things at the same time might be incompatible with better performance.

So what does this mean in your every day work world? There are some limitations to this study, especially because the tasks in question were fairly structured and concrete.  However, the authors suggest a few possibilities:

  1. Less extraverted leaders can actively facilitate more proactive behaviours among employees, by being more receptive to employees speaking up, by encouraging them to take charge, to develop new work methods, and to exercise upward influence.
  2. Highly extraverted leaders can improve group performance by determining which situations calls for proactive behaviour, and practice a less dominating style, becoming more reserved in those situations.
  3. Training future extroverted leaders to identity, encourage and reward proactive behaviours.

As a recovering extravert, I know I’m trying to be more reserved and receptive to others ideas.  How about you?

Source: Grant, Adam, Gino, Franchesca, and Hofmann, David. “Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity”.  The Academy of Management Journal. Vo. 54. No.3 June 2011. p. 528 – 550.


4 replies »

  1. Is there a correlation between a person’s extroversion and his ability to be receptive?

    In the definitions of extroversion that I quickly looked up I did not see “tendency to seek out status, to be dominant.” Rather I saw assertive and enthusiastic … obtaining gratification from what is outside the self.

    So a ‘healthy’ extrovert would by definition be receptive.

    If a person was self absorbed and only concerned about themselves, then of course they are not receptive and probably not a good leader. Whether they were introverted or extroverted seems like a separate (and non connected) issue.

    The study seams circular in it’s conclusions. Strong leadership (whether by the an extroverted leader or a passive leader with a strong confederate produced the best results. (In the later case the strong leadership is coming from the team and not the passive style by the leader.)

    I would argue the world needs strong leaders who are interested in the opinions of others.

    And in the post-industrial age, self leadership and the ability to work within teams will be most valued.

    This is a fascinating exercise in thinking but I believe the original flawed definition of extroversion sets up a premise where two independent concepts are incorrectly correlated.

    • Steve,
      You missed an important distinction in your summary of the “Healthy Extrovert”. Yes, they are indeed receptive. What’s missing? It is what they are receptive to. Extrovert leaders are not, usually, looking for a better way of getting something done or creating a better mouse trap so they are usually in conflict with those who take that approach – even if undeclared. What extroverts are looking for is confirmation from the outside that they are doing it right and this is true in leadership, singing and public speaking as well as most other parts of living.
      The introvert is a different animal altogether and that doesn’t necessarily mean better. However, the introvert is more of a receptive animal because their confirmation of doing it right or don’t know if it’s right is internal.
      The two styles are like Yin & Yang. They work best together balancing each other out. The study would seem to confirm that.
      Since everyone has both of these traits, strong leadership can only come from a “Healthy introvert/extrovert” who can and will listen to the opinions of others while correcting or re-aligning their views where necessary.


  2. Thanks, Skotia, for your thoughtful reply. “Healthy” and “open” and “balance” are all things we agree. And understanding the differing styles, the Yin & Yang, are what makes leaders great. You point is well taken.

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