Sunday, February 16, 2014

Introversion, Extroversion, and a Theory of Leadership

Susan Cain provides a fascinating look at the two opposing personality characteristics of introversion and extroversion in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

Psychologists would claim that between a third and a half of people in the US are introverts. It is difficult to determine a precise number because people fall at all places along the introversion-to-extroversion scale. It is also possible for individuals to morph (at least temporarily) from one personality form into the other as situations demand, so simple, brief observations can also be misleading. Nevertheless, psychologists believe that the tendency towards either of the two personality types is genetically wired because they can measure differences in physiological response to certain stimuli even in infancy.

Cain provides some dominant characteristics of the two types. In terms of comfort levels for external stimulation:

"….introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel ‘just right’ with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo."

In terms of how the two might comport themselves in a work environment:

"Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration."

"Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast (sometimes rash) decisions, and are comfortable multitasking and risk-taking."

And in terms of social styles:

"[Introverts] listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions."

"[Extroverts] tend to be assertive, dominant, and in great need of company. Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say. They’re comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude."

Cain tells us that these two personality types can be found throughout the animal kingdom. One is led to speculate that evolution might have preserved both traits because both contribute to the survival of the specific species. If that is the case, then evolution may have arrived at the current distribution as a rough attempt at optimization.

Cain points out that society had begun, starting early in the twentieth century, to glorify one personality type at the expense of the other.

"America had shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality—and opened up a Pandora’s Box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover."

If one goes back and examines photos of relatives that date back a century, one is likely to encounter serious and perhaps even grim expressions on their faces. These people might have viewed the smiles we now conjure up for a photo as, perhaps, evidence of some form of mental deficiency.

"In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of ‘having a good personality’ was not widespread until the twentieth."

"But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans began to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. ‘The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,’ Susman famously wrote. ‘Every American was to become a performing self’."

The idealization of the extrovert personality made some sense as society and the business environment changed and emphasized success in interpersonal relationships. Cain’s complaint is that the emphasis on one personality type needn’t have downgraded the utility of the other.

"Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology."

Extreme shyness is now considered a mental illness to be treated with brain-altering drugs. Children who prefer solitude risk being diagnosed as having an inferiority complex. School children are constantly encouraged (forced?) to participate in team learning exercises. A set of values that originated in the world of salesmanship are now dominant in our culture—and are imposed upon our children.

"’This style of teaching reflects the business community,’ one fifth-grade teacher in a Manhattan public school told me, ‘where people’s respect for others is based on their verbal abilities, not their originality or insight. You have to be someone who speaks well and calls attention to yourself. It’s an elitism based on something other than merit’."

In a chapter titled The Myth of Charismatic Leadership, Cain takes the reader to the cathedral for "elitism based on something other than merit:" Harvard Business School (HBS). She also refers to it as the "Spiritual Capital of Extroversion."

"The essence of the HBS education is that leaders have to act confidently and make decisions even in the face of incomplete information. The teaching method plays with an age-old question: If you don’t have all the facts—and often you won’t—should you wait to act until you’ve collected as much data as possible? Or, by hesitating, do you risk losing others’ trust and your own momentum?"

"The HBS teaching method implicitly comes down on the side of certainty. The CEO may not know the best way forward, but she has to act anyway."

The message to HBS students would seem to be that if you want to be a leader, then when in doubt, don’t appear doubtful; act as if you are certain. This is a message that markets well to those who are ambitious and have money to spend.

"If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day. This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones get squashed. Yet studies in group dynamics suggest that this is exactly what happens. We perceive talkers as smarter than quiet types—even though grade-point averages and SAT and intelligence test scores reveal this perception to be inaccurate."

How might real-world data assess the efficacy of the HBS approach to leadership? Is charismatic leadership actually a myth?

"Contrary to the Harvard Business School model of vocal leadership, the ranks of successful CEOs turn out to be filled with introverts….’Among the most effective leaders I have encountered and worked with in half a century,’ the management guru Peter Drucker has written, ‘some locked themselves into their office and others were ultra-gregarious. Some were quick and impulsive, while others studied the situation and took forever to come to a decision….The one and only personality trait the effective ones I have encountered did have in common was something they did not have: they had little or no "charisma" and little use either for the term or what it signifies’."

Cain alerts us to the results of a study by the management theorist Jim Collins whose goal was to determine the characteristics of companies that outperformed their competitors.

"….when he analyzed what the highest performing companies had in common, the nature of their CEOs jumped out at him. Every single one of them was led by an unassuming man….Those who worked with these leaders tended to describe them with the following words: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated."

"The lesson, says Collins, is clear. We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run."

So it seems that both the attributes of introverts and those of extroverts can be useful in leadership positions. For a more nuanced look at desirable leadership characteristics, Cain suggests the reader consider the work of Adam Grant, a management professor at Wharton.

"….when he looked closely at the existing studies on personality and leadership, he found that the correlation between extroversion and leadership was modest….these studies were often based on people’s perceptions of who made a good leader, as opposed to actual results. And personal opinions are often a simple reflection of cultural bias."

Grant believes a failing in most studies of leadership is that account is not taken of the personnel environments in which leaders find themselves. His theory is that introverted leaders are more effective when surrounded by proactive employees, and extroverted leaders are more effective when surrounded by passive employees.

"Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions. Having benefited from the talents of their followers, they are then likely to motivate them to be even more proactive. Introverted leaders create a virtuous circle of proactivity, in other words."

"Extroverts, on the other hand, can be so intent on putting their own stamp on events that they risk losing others’ good ideas along the way and allowing [proactive] workers to lapse into passivity….But with their natural ability to inspire, extroverted leaders are better at getting results from more passive workers."

Nature saw fit to preserve both personality types through the ages, why would we think that the world of business requires the dominance of one over the other? And why would we consider that society would be better off if we went against the wisdom of the ages and transformed everyone into loud, high-energy bores?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged