The Benefits of the Introverted Business Leader

November 4, 2016 | Roger and Susie Engelau

In a society where extraversion reigns, the introverted business leader can sometimes get the sense that we’re lacking in social and people skills.

You or your team members may have a preference for an introverted way of interacting if, for example,

  • Conversation outside the subject of your expertise doesn’t come easy
  • You do your best thinking alone vs in a brainstorming group setting
  • You’re happy to sit by yourself working on a project all day with little interaction from others
  • Managing by walking around, making eye contact, and “glad-handing” is uncomfortable
  • Taking your time before answering a question is preferable to fumbling the answer

“Team work,” “networking,” “executive presence,” “brainstorming,” and “people skills”—activities of the world of extraverts—have become standard skill sets for successful business leaders.

It’s true that extraverted behaviors can help you be successful in business leadership.  There’s a charisma about the extraverted leader who can tell a good story, is never at a loss for words, and who enjoys socializing with employees and suppliers vs the more reserved nature of the introverted leader. Extraverts are accessible, relaxed, easy to know, and comfortable to be around. They’re often presumed leaders because they talk more and answer quickly.

While it’s true that the introverted business leader need to push him/erself to share more and socialize more, the natural skill sets that come with introversion are valuable and deserve recognition… and even aspiration. In fact, there’s a revolution currently underway to hold up the natural skills and tendencies of the introvert.

By the way, even those who identify as extraverted, can and do introvert.  Similarly, introverts extravert with the best of them when the situation calls for it. This Jungian language, revealed by completing the Myers-Briggs Personality Instrument, refers to the fact that each person has a “preference” for one or the other. Higher use of one over another over time can result in a higher skill. (Go here to take the Myers-Briggs).

Here’s some new thinking on the benefits of introverted leader behaviors:

More Listening and Less Talking

Studies show that the introverted business leader is better at leading proactive employees because they listen to and let them run with their ideas.  Introverted leaders outperform extraverted leaders when the employees are initiative-takers. In a study of 5 pizza chains cited by Susan Cain in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” (a good read), stores led by introverted leaders outperformed those led by extroverted leaders by 14% when they led employees who were initiative-takers. Extraverts, on the other hand, had higher performance when the members on the teams they led were made up more of passive employees.  In another study, introverted leaders were 20% more likely to listen to and follow the suggestions of workers, leading their teams to 24% better results than the teams led by extraverts.

The Introverted business leader is less likely to favor asserting opinions or dominating the conversation. They prefer instead to gather information and engage people by making them feel heard.  In one of the studies cited above, workers perceived the introverted leaders as more open and receptive to their ideas which, in turn, motivated them to work harder.

Another benefit of more listening and less talking is this—because they’re heard talking less often, when the introvert speaks they tend to make a bigger impact; people tune in.

Solitude Leads to Superior Performance

How do extraordinary achievers get so good at what they do?  They work at it alone.

  • Psychologist Anders Ericcson’s famous study of 3 groups of expert violinists found that the only difference in the 2 higher performing groups was that a larger portion of their practice time was spent practicing in solitude.
  • Steve Wozniak credits his time alone as the reason he successfully invented the personal computer and in his memoir, gives this advice: “Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

In a surprising turn, open floor plans reduce productivity, impair memory, make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure, according to research cited by Cain. They’re associated with high staff turnover and even high blood pressure.  In a famous study of 600 computer programmers (The Coding Wars by Tom DeMarco), the top performing groups overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave them privacy, personal space, and freedom from interruptions. Unfortunately, the amount of space per employee is down from 500 square feet per employee in the 1970’s to 176 in 2012.

Another surprising finding is this-stimulation has been found to impede learning. According to Cain, a recent study found that people learn more after a quiet stroll through the woods than after a noisy walk down a city street. Another study of 38,000 workers found that the greatest barrier to productivity is being interrupted.

There was good reason that the epiphanies of Jesus and Moses occurred while in the wilderness. Check out more on this in Cain’s entertaining TED Talk.

Internet Communication Proficiency

While extroverts prefer action-oriented work and can become restless with prolonged time spent at the computer, introverted business leaders are uniquely suited for email communication, social media, and texting. They prefer to express themselves in writing and are usually quite good at it. Online communication is right up their alley. This is especially useful in establishing an online presence and building relationships via the internet since few, if any, businesses are viable without online marketing.

Actions Business Leaders Can Take to Improve Company Performance

The pendulum swings to extraversion in our workplace yet, the goal is not to swing it to introversion. Rather, our objective is balance and inclusion.  Since up to half of your work group may be introverted, here are some actions to achieve balance and higher performance levels:

  • Extraverted leaders may wish to adopt a more reserved style—talk less, listen more, and incorporate others’ ideas.
  • If employees tend to be initiative-taking types who need their ideas heard, place them on the team of an introverted leader. If employees are more passive, place them on the team of an extraverted leader.
  • Provide quiet and private workspace vs open floor plans… and give more space per employee.
  • Arrange for break time in a quiet nature setting away from the hustle and bustle of the work.
  • Give lengthy, one-person tasks to introverts. They’ll love them.
  • Let introverts do the work of online marketing.

In our Western culture, the “extravert ideal” has dominated leaving a large portion of our workforce, according to a Forbes article, with skills that are more likely to be overlooked and underappreciated.  The fact is, both introversion and extraversion are required to accomplish great things at your company. I applaud this “quiet revolution” that brings a needed balance to our personality and work styles and to those of our employees.

Go here to take the Myers-Briggs personality assessment.

  • Enter Login – Inspire      Password – Results7  (You don’t need a UserID)
  • Choose “MBTI Step I (Form M) and click “Begin”

Note – the cost for your results report is $100 which includes a 30-minute analysis over the phone with Susie Engelau, Myers-Briggs Certified Administrator.  After you complete the instrument, Susie will connect with you to set up a convenient time.