Introverts bring special traits to leadership that may make them more effective than extroverts.

Introverts as Managers: A Natural Pairing

Jun 25, 2020

by Jean Thilmany

Alone time can be hard. Introverts may welcome it to some degree. Introverts who are managers may use this as a chance to reflect on their team and leadership skills—both in-person and remote—and find ways to improve on them.

First let’s dispel one big myth: that introverts can’t make good managers. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Todd Dewett, an organizational behaviorist who speaks frequently on leadership.

The myth comes up particularly in engineering circles because engineers are often stereotyped as introverts, he said. As introverts make up around 50 percent of the population, they can be found among the engineers, as can extroverts, he said.

The main difference between the two is that introverts need low-key or alone time alone to reset and regain energy while extroverts draw on energy from others and being amid events, said Susan Cain. Her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” (2013, Random House), ironically got people talking about the lack of recognition introverts get in American society, let alone in leadership. They bring skills like listening, making employees feel valued, and motivating team members, all of which their extroverted friends may be in shorter supply.

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In these fast-changing times of crisis, organizations need employees to be proactive, to take initiative, and to anticipate threats and opportunities. Extroverts tend to find these traits threatening, although they’re critical if an organization is to succeed and survive, Adam Grant has found in his research. He’s an organizational psychology professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

In fact, if you’re an introverted leader, you can be more effective than extroverts in certain circumstances. The determining factor is who leaders are managing, according to Grant and his co-authors, who carried out research for an often-cited paper in the June 2011 edition of the Academy of Management Journal, titled “Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of the Proactive Employee.”

Pairing extroverted leaders with employees who take initiative and speak out can lead to friction while pairing the same group of employees with an introverted leader can bring a team to success, the researchers found.
“This tells us little about the situations in which introverted leaders can be more effective than extraverted leaders,” Grant said in a Wharton publication that details the research.

Introverted Managers: Why They Shine
  • They’re comfortable listening. An introvert thinks first and talks later. They consider others’ ideas and respond to them, said Katie Rasoul, a leadership coach who founded the company Team Awesome. 
  • They often want to become managers because they have a passion for the subject or the job itself. Their passion keeps them going and motivates their employees, Dewett said. 
  • They project a calm demeanor that can be heard above organizational noise, he said. 
  • Similarly, they can display a sense of low-key calm, even in times of crisis, Dewett said. 
  • They tend to plan more than extroverts. Planning helps them stay focused, Raspoul said. 
  • They can hold deep conversations, allowing them to dig down to issues and ask probing questions, she added. 
  • The people they manage feel safe and secure in speaking up and asking questions, she said.
 
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Ways to Work With their Strengths

Introverts who are managers create conditions in which they can manage best. Those will be different than the conditions an extrovert needs to create. For the introvert, tips include:
  • Plan downtime into your day. Introverts need and enjoy solitude. Don’t feel guilty about it and don’t abandon that need, Cain said. “We maintain a very strong will and it’s during times of solitude that we can draw upon or strengths and find the courage to lead,” she added. 
  • When you need to feel rejuvenated, remember the times you’ve felt a sense of peace, she says. Cain has spoken about her memory of energy and quiet time, sun streaming back to her. Thinking back to those moments helps her recapture the feeling. 
  • Build downtime into meetings. Pause every 15 minutes for a short period of silence. This gives you and others on your team time to process what they’ve heard and helps ensure that the voices of all team members are heard, Cain said. 
  • If you have a fear of public speaking or of leading a meeting, exposure therapy helps. Expose yourself to the thing you fear in very small bites, said Rasoul. 
“The key is to do it little by little,” she said. “Sign up for toastmasters, practice in an environment where stakes are low. Practice by opening a conversation, making small talk, or telling a story. Push outside your comfort zone, maybe by attending a professional event when you’d rather stay home.”

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You never completely overcome it,” she added. “And it’s OK to have some fear. Public speaking is a common fear. Don’t let it stand in your way.
 
  • Try to banish thoughts like “I’m not supposed to feel this way” and replace that with, “It’s OK and perfectly normal to feel this way,” Rasoul said. In a society set up to reward extroverts, it can be easy to fall into a negative thinking pattern. 
  • Confront something or someone immediately after realizing a problem. Better to resolve issues right off the bat than let them fester. Delaying only makes the confrontation grow in your mind and makes it harder than it needs to be, she said. 
  • Be prepared, Cain stresses. If you know you’ll need a respite between interviewing job candidates, build that into the daily calendar. Write out thoughtful questions before the interview. Being prepared helps you handle it when something switches gears, such as when your presentation changes direction during the question and answer period. 
  • Be present, she said. Be present in a way that allows you to be with people, not preoccupied with the past or thinking about the future. Glance up from your laptop to make eye contact with a team member when they ask you a question or call out a keen observation at a meeting, 
  • Use your energy wisely. Be sure to conserve it so you still have the energy for a partner, family members, friends, and responsibilities in the world outside work.
  • Neither the introverted leaders nor the extraverted leaders showed higher productivity or profitability than the other, Grant found.
“Organizational teams are well served to have a mix of personality types,” he said. “Your organization needs calm, reassuring managers.”

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Jean Thilmany is an independent writer in St. Paul, Minn.
 

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