Miscalculated Emotion – How Introverts Can Avoid Limiting Their Potential
Posted on March 23, 2018 by Tom Siddle.
The term emergent leadership is used in occupational psychology to describe the process of an individual naturally assuming a leadership position within a group without a formally defined leader. Research has demonstrated that when brought together in ‘leaderless’ groups, irrespective of the size of the group or purpose, certain individuals will assume command directly or indirectly. This is an evolutionary human trait; social dominance hierarchies, also found across the animal kingdom, help to establish order whilst providing stable structures.
It is well established in psychology that extroverts – outgoing and confident individuals – will more readily accept and emerge as leaders in leaderless group situations when compared with introverts, who tend to be more shy or cautious. This makes sense as one would expect an individual’s confidence and assertiveness to affect how they might engage in leadership behaviour, especially in a group of strangers.
Three researchers at the Queensland University of Technology recently investigated potential reasons for this and explored how they could be overcome. Spark, Stansmore and O’Connor (2018) assessed trait-levels of extraversion in a sample of business students before then analysing their leadership behaviour on unstructured group tasks. The team predicted that introverts would associate leadership behaviour with undesirable emotional states (e.g. stress) and that, for this reason, they would shy away from assuming these roles. This principal is known in psychology as ‘affective forecasting’ and suggests that people modify behaviour based on how they predict that behaviour will make them feel emotionally in the future.
It would be easy to think, based on the above and other similar previous research, that introverts would make poor leaders because they do not enjoy being in positions of command. However previous research has indicated that this isn’t the case – although introverts expect to feel negative emotional states when they imagine themselves in a leadership position, they actually report as many positive feelings as extraverts both during and after. In other words, introverts only expect to feel worse, rather than actually feeling worse.
In line with this, Spark, Stansmore and O’Connor (2018) found that introverts were indeed less likely to emerge as leaders, but crucially that it was their forecasted negative affect (emotion) that explained the differences in leader-oriented behaviour between introverts and extroverts.
What does this finding mean for practitioners and organisations?
One implication is that introverted employees are less likely to push themselves forward into positions of command than more extroverted employees. Crucially, however, this behaviour is only driven by the introvert’s perception of how doing so might make them feel, rather than how they actually will feel, or more importantly, how qualified and capable they are of being leaders.
In fact, several pieces of academic research point to the underrated strengths of introverted leaders and suggest they may even be more effective in the right leadership roles. Grant and Hofmann (2010), for example, suggest that introverted leaders may get more out of outgoing and proactive teams.
Introverted HiPo’s and future leaders should also be made aware of their potential tendencies to avoid leader behaviours. Creating this self-awareness may avoid losing the contribution and/or development of more introverted employees who may be just as if not more capable than their extraverted counterparts. Instead they should be encouraged to proactively engage in leader behaviours, as their predictions of how these will make them feel may be inaccurate.
Going out of their comfort zones may not be as uncomfortable as they think it will be.
Practitioner Take-Home Points
- Extraverted employees are more likely to assume leadership positions or perform more leader-style actions when compared with more introverted employees
- This isn’t because they are more capable but rather because introverted employees incorrectly predict that such actions will lead to future negative emotions (e.g. stress/anxiety)
- Research suggests that whilst the majority of organisational leaders are more extroverted, this doesn’t necessarily mean that extroverted leaders are more effective
- Leaders should identify the talented but more introverted team members and work with them to reduce leadership avoidance – doing so will ensure organisations get the most out of all of their people, not just the extroverts
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