The Trouble With Extroverted Leaders

Strong personalities are essential for leadership, but one study suggests that extroversion can be too much of a good thing. Hard-charging execs can learn something from introverts.

A good leader needs some kind of presence around the office—how else do you communicate that there’s an authority around? But it seems that while a little attitude can go a long way, too much of it can be counterproductive.

That’s the finding of a recent study from the Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business. Jia (Jasmine) Hu, an associate professor at the school, led research that involved two surveys. One was based on a group of undergraduate business students, the other on employees in a large retail firm in China. In both cases, the groups were broken up into small teams that managed themselves on a variety of tasks.

If you’re too assertive as a team member, people think you’re pushy and they don’t like that.

At the start, participants were asked to rate their own leadership abilities in terms of two traits that are associated with extroverts: “assertiveness” and “warmth” (friendliness, outgoingness, etc.)  At the end of the study a few months later, all participants were asked to rate their fellow team members. The researchers then determined who was best appreciated as a leader.

Hu’s research suggests that if you’re either too assertive or too familiar with your colleagues, people around you tend to be turned off. “If you’re too assertive as a team member, people think you’re pushy and they don’t like that,” said Hu in a release about the research. “And if you’re too warm and friendly, that can be overwhelming for others who feel pressured to respond in the same enthusiastic way.”

There’s a twist, though: Team members were more accepting of a high-octane extrovert if they were confident that the person was behaving altruistically. “They know you’re not doing it just to promote yourself, but have a genuine interest in the whole team,” Hu said. “That means a lot.”

Reports on Hu’s study have focused on what it means for extroverted leaders, but I think there are a few lessons here for introverts as well. The study is a reminder that leadership isn’t solely a function of swagger, attitude, or even the ability to command a room; the capacity to directly and sincerely communicate with others is also critical.

In 2017, I wrote about a study that revealed how introverted people can often thrive as leaders in organizations. Among the skill sets that study praised were ones that match Hu’s findings about connection, selflessness, and mission focus: “reaching out to stakeholders; being highly adaptable to change; being reliable and predictable rather than showing exceptional, and perhaps not repeatable performance.”

None of that should be interpreted to mean that introverts or extroverts are any better at leading an organization. (And of course, as all those Myers-Briggs assessments explain, these temperaments reside on a spectrum.) Nor does it mean that there’s any such thing as a “Goldilocks leader” who encompasses every admirable quality. “A moderate amount of assertiveness and warmth may be optimal,” Hu says, which sounds a little comically prescriptive. I fear we’ll soon have an app that’s capable of helping me moderate my warmth.

But if the study doesn’t mean we ought to overhaul our own behaviors, it might help guide our thinking about the teams we build and who we want to manage them. In organizations, a leader’s instinct is often to stack new staff and volunteer teams with hard-charging get-things-done types, for fear that the project won’t take flight without a leader with that attitude. But it’s worth considering, in light of Hu’s research, that not all leaders need to be hard-charging, and that indeed it can be a turn-off for the rest of that team.

In 2013, Susan Cain, author of Quiet and a scholar of introverts, spoke at ASAE’s Annual Meeting & Exposition, delivering a reminder that the introverts in the office can be a powerful resource but that they’re too often overlooked. “There’s more than one way to do the tasks of modern-day leadership and modern-day work,” she told the audience then. It’s a truth worth remembering as we try to sort out who’s best at getting things done.

What traits do you look for in the teams you build, and have you found excessive extroversion a challenge in your organization? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Deagreez/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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