What Happens When Introverts Act Like Extraverts? In a Word, Leadership
Quiet, reserved, shy, unassertive. These are terms often used to describe introverts and are not usually the behaviors we think of when we think of a leader. Instead, we tend to associate leadership behavior with being bold, assertive, and outgoing—these terms are used to describe extraverts.
Why are people low in extraversion—introverts—perceived to be less leaderlike (even in their own opinion)? More importantly, what behavioral strategies can introverts use to overcome this perception?
How To Create Leaders
Together with my colleague, Professor Peter O’Connor, we hoped to see if we could improve how introverts viewed their own leadership capability, and how others viewed them. In groups of three or four, over 600 people worked together to solve an ambiguous survival problem developed by NASA that involved a hypothetical crash-landing on the Moon. We also measured the personalities of the participants, including how extraverted they were. Before the group activity started, we selected one person within each group to enact one of the following behavioral instructions:
- To act energetic, talkative, enthusiastic, bold, active, assertive, and sociable—this was the ‘act extraverted’ instruction
- To act quiet, reserved, lethargic, passive, compliant, and unadventurous—the ‘act introverted’ instruction
- No special instruction—they were free to act how they wanted during the activity
We measured the leadership of all participants both in terms of how they viewed their own leadership behaviors and how their group members viewed their leadership behaviors. We then compared how much leadership was displayed by the chosen participants in each of the three conditions. We also compared how much positive and negative emotion the chosen participants felt after the activity.
What did we find? Extraverts did indeed enjoy more leadership potential, no matter what instructions they received. Also, introverts who were instructed to act like extraverts were more likely to emerge as leaders in their group, without any damage to their positive or negative emotion.
Extraverts were another matter entirely. Extraverts who were instructed to act quiet, reserved, shy, and so forth thought quite poorly of their own leadership capability. They also felt worse emotionally. Quite simply, extraverts didn’t like acting introverted.
You may be surprised that introverts who acted like extraverts didn’t suffer emotionally, but other research also shows that introverts do quite well when they act extraverted. So, why do introverts not act extraverted more often? It seems one of the biggest barriers to introverts acting extraverted may not be the acting itself, but the expectation of the acting. Introverts think that acting like an extravert will be unpleasant, when in fact it usually isn’t.
First, extraverts are, on average, seen to be more leaderlike than introverts. Second—and fortunately—personality is not completely deterministic because you can engage in behaviors that are “out of character” to achieve leadership goals. And finally, for introverts, acting out of character does not appear to make them unhappy, but for extraverts it does.
But should an introvert have to act like an extravert to obtain a leadership position, or should leadership positions better adapt to allow for more introverted leaders? My answer is a little of both, although I lean more towards the former than the latter. Leadership is inherently a socially-oriented role. It doesn’t make sense that you can be effective in a leadership role without engaging in at least some of the behaviors that define extraversion, such as being assertive, bold, talkative, and energetic. Furthermore, being behaviorally flexible can be a character strength.
At the same time, there are situations where organizations should embrace introverted leadership. This can happen on teams where the members are already very proactive and like to get things done. In that case, it may be better to have an introverted leader at the helm because they are less likely to assert themselves and potentially “get in the way.”
In sum, both introverts and extraverts can be great leaders, but introverts are less likely to be viewed as leaderlike. However, introverts can adapt their behavior to enhance their leadership potential, with minimal emotional cost, even though they may not think that doing so will be much fun.
For Further Reading
Grant, A. M., Gino, F., & Hofmann, D. A. (2011). Reversing the extraverted leadership advantage: The role of employee proactivity. Academy of Management Journal, 54(3), 528-550. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2011.61968043
Spark, A., & O'Connor, P. J. (2021). State extraversion and emergent leadership: Do introverts emerge as leaders when they act like extraverts? The Leadership Quarterly, 32(3), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2020.101474
Zelenski, J. M., Whelan, D. C., Nealis, L. J., Besner, C. M., Santoro, M. S., & Wynn, J. E. (2013). Personality and affective forecasting: Trait introverts underpredict the hedonic benefits of acting extraverted. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(6), 1092-1108. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032281
Andrew Spark is a personality scientist at Queensland University of Technology and conducts research into the causes and consequences of acting out of character.