We are all different. There is nothing strange on the fact that each of us sees the world in a different way, acts differently and interacts with others in a unique manner. And still, in the years as a manager I have consistently seen that there is this notion of “the one correct way” how a leader should act. Too many times I have been involved in a discussion whether someone is “a leadership material” and too many times the answers where “no, because he is too quiet on meetings” or “no, he needs to speak up more”. There is this ideal of a perfect leader as seen in the western society: outgoing, outspoken, overconfident, overoptimistic, always stepping up, always talking and always being the first everywhere. In simple terms a heavily extroverted person.
Sounds fair, doesn’t it? Especially when you consider that this type of person can easily lead other people like him because that is the sort of people he understands. It would sound great, except that this type of person has usually troubles with listening to others. And it would sound great, except for the fact that there are (depending on research) somewhere between 30% – 50% of introverts in the common population. For the full disclosure, I consider myself pretty introverted person, at best an ambivert, if some tests are to be believed. Even with that “fault” I built and led global teams in several companies and countries. And it is not just me. Look around you and you will see that there are many introverted leaders. For example, does the name Bill Gates ring a bell? If you ask what prompted me to think a bit about how and why I got where I’m and why and how I lead people, I just finished reading a great book Quiet by Susan Cain. This book resonated strongly with me and triggered a series of articles I’m about to write in coming weeks and months describing my own experience.
Introverts x Extroverts
Let us start with answering a basic question. Who is a typical introvert and extrovert and why should you care? I don’t like generalizations but since the introversion and extroversion are terms described by scientists let’s revert to them. The terms were originally coined by Carl Jung and the definitions below are taken from Wikipedia.
Extraversion is the act, state, or habit of being predominantly concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the self. Extraverts tend to enjoy human interactions and to be enthusiastic, talkative, assertive, and gregarious. Extraverts are energized and thrive off of being around other people. They take pleasure in activities that involve large social gatherings, such as parties, community activities, public demonstrations, and business or political groups. An extraverted person is likely to enjoy time spent with people and find less reward in time spent alone.
Introversion is “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life. The common modern perception is that introverts tend to be more reserved and less outspoken in groups. They often take pleasure in solitary activities such as reading, writing, or using computers. An introvert is likely to enjoy time spent alone and find less reward in time spent with large groups of people, though he or she may enjoy interactions with close friends. They prefer to concentrate on a single activity at a time and like to observe situations before they participate. They are more analytical before speaking. Introverts are easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation from social gatherings and engagement.
To complete the record these traits are not so black and white. Introversion and extroversion is a continuum and many people sit close to the middle (so called ambiverts). In fact if someone was a hundred per cent introverted or extroverted he or she would probably end up in asylum for insane.
And why should you care? If you are a leader, chances are you have a team mixed of both personality types. The knowledge of how each of the types interacts with the world, what motivates them, what makes them happy and what they don’t like can help you to use the right strategy and be more successful at leading them. And yes, I mentioned it at the beginning, each of us is different so not everything applies across the board.
No mind-reading please
The single most important mantra you should follow when leading anyone is to “listen and don’t interpret”. Don’t try to read minds of other people around you and you will save yourself lots of misunderstandings. If you are extroverted person working with another extrovert with similar educational and cultural background you can probably guess why he or she reacts in a certain way because that is how you would act. However, the moment you start working with someone significantly different (being it different culture or different personality type) chances are you will misinterpret the behavior.
For example imagine this situation. You are having lunch with a friend and after couple of minutes talking there is suddenly a silence. And you may think “oh, this is awkward.” You feel that the other person must feel the same and you are compelled to say something. Well, chances are that your introverted friend didn’t find the silence awkward at all and in fact may even enjoy it for a while as small-talk may not be his most popular thing to do.
The lesson learned is that you should always listen and look for clues, and you should never try to interpret what they mean. If you see some behavior you don’t understand and you really believe that it means something then just ask for clarification. Describe what you see and ask whether your interpretation is correct.
Twitter type summary: “When developing and leading people always make sure you consider even introverts for highly visible leadership roles.”
Are you introverted yourself? Or do you interact with people who are on the quiet side? What are your thoughts on introversion versus extroversion?