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Extroverts don't always make the most stable leaders

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Extroverts tend to emerge as natural leaders in the workplace, however new research reveals they experience high turnover in their networks, says Blaine Landis, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at UCL School of Management.

11th Jul 2022
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Conventional wisdom tells us that extroverts – typically the most assertive, outgoing and high-energy people in a group– make the most effective leaders. This seems only natural as extroverts tend to be strong, confident communicators who draw energy from social interactions and motivate others with their enthusiastic presence. 

Indeed, this notion is supported by research showing that the trait of extraversion consistently correlates with leadership emergence. What these studies tend to do, however, is explore only one point in time, rather than considering how these newly emerged extrovert leaders fare in the long term. 

I was inspired to look at what happens over time by an exercise I carry out in one of my leadership classes. In the class, I ask four volunteers to leave the classroom, and in their absence, I ask the rest of the class to count how many times they speak, ask questions, and interrupt each other. When the volunteers return, I ask them to discuss a particular topic, before having the class assess who they consider a leader. Without fail, the person who speaks the most makes the list, but this same person also tends to interrupt the most and ask the fewest questions.

Although extroverts emerge as natural leaders, is this perception likely to change if you are constantly dominating the conversation and disregarding others’ opinions?

Extroverted leaders experience high network turnover 

This got me thinking about how these personality traits play out in leaders over time. Although extroverts emerge as natural leaders, is this perception likely to change if you are constantly dominating the conversation and disregarding others’ opinions? These questions eventually led me to my recent research paper, which concerns the longevity of extrovert leaders in both an academic and a professional context.

The findings echoed what I saw in the classroom: extroverts quickly emerged as leaders and had many people in their leadership network, but there was a high level of ‘network churn’ over time. In other words, while the number of people who saw extroverts as leaders remained fairly consistent, there were significant changes in the makeup of that network. 

Experiencing high levels of network turnover poses new challenges for leaders. Trying to influence and persuade people who once thought of you as a leader is challenging, if not downright awkward. To lead and manage effectively, it helps to be liked and respected, not just the loudest person in the room. So, what can extrovert leaders do about this? 

Overcoming network churn

I suggest a twofold approach which involves taking stock of external and internal perspectives, both to get an outsider’s point of view on how you come across and to assess the impact this is having on your network. Others are likely to pick up on things that you might miss in yourself, and their perspective is invaluable. After a big presentation or meeting, you might want to check in with a close friend at work whose opinion you trust and value and get ask them to give you an honest evaluation. There’s little point asking a colleague you’re not close with who’s likely to give you a polite answer to avoid offending you – you need someone who is honest with you. 

In the same vein, it might be worthwhile watching a recording of a video call and taking stock of others’ reactions. Thanks to the surge in remote working caused by the pandemic, this is easier than ever. While this might feel a bit uncomfortable and awkward at first, watching yourself back allows you both to evaluate your performance and see how others respond to you. 

To get an internal point of view, consider your leadership network every now and then to see whether you have a high level of network churn, with many people dropping in and out of your leadership network over time.

If you do find you need to gain new connections to replace those who are leaving, think about who’s leaving and why. Are you pushing your own ideas, or are you listening to and making space for others? Are you coming across as overconfident and cocky, or are you engaging those who are less extroverted? By standing back and reflecting on your behaviour, you can identify areas that might be leading to churn. 

For introverts hoping to step into a leadership role and grow their network, consider becoming a strategic extrovert. 

Strategic extroversion

For those more introverted leaders thinking, this doesn’t apply to me: you’re not alone. Introverts may have smaller networks than extroverts and there’s something to be said for the stability of these networks, which tends to be much higher, giving an enduring degree of influence and respect that many extroverts may strive for. 

Nonetheless, I believe we all have some extroverted tendencies to one degree or another, and there’s no harm in taking advantage of this in the workplace. For introverts hoping to step into a leadership role and grow their network, consider becoming a strategic extrovert. 

This doesn’t mean changing your whole personality but simply choosing situations at work where you are more sociable and assertive. This is particularly important for those looking to emerge as leaders, as you will need to speak up at the right time to get noticed. 

Best of both worlds 

Ultimately, we can’t ignore that data consistently reveals extroverts do frequently emerge as leaders in organisations today, and those looking to progress should take this into consideration. However, extroverted leaders encounter various challenges related to high leadership network turnover, affecting their influence within their network – and this cannot be ignored.

The good news is there are straightforward, practical steps extrovert leaders can take to address these challenges and become more effective and well-rounded leaders.

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