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Are extroverts good leaders?

The corporate world loves extroverts, but new research casts doubt on their leadership abilities.

(Photo: Rob Melnychuk)

Extroverts are ubiquitous in leadership positions. One study found that 96% of U.S. managers and executives are extroverts, a personality type characterized as energetic, talkative and assertive, even though 50% of the general U.S. population falls into this category.

After learning this fact, it’s natural to assume that extroverts must be good managers, and that this trait is necessary for anyone with leadership aspirations. But that’s far from the truth, argues a group of academics in the latest issue of the European Business Review. Extroversion helps people ascend the ranks, but it does not necessarily make for successful leaders. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the corporate world, extroversion can be detrimental to a company in certain situations.

The three authors, who hail from Harvard Business School, the Wharton School, and the University of North Carolina, conducted a couple of tests to rate the effectiveness of extroverted leaders. First, they surveyed 130 franchises of a U.S. pizza delivery company and asked managers to rate how extroverted they considered themselves. They also queried employees about how often they suggested ideas to their managers about improving operations. Where extroverted managers led largely passive employees (those who rarely brought up new ideas), they achieved profits that were 16% higher than franchises led by introverts. But when extroverts led more ambitious employees, profits were actually 14% lower.

In another experiment, the authors had groups of college students fold as many T-shirts as possible in 10 minutes. Again, extroverted leaders performed better with passive team members, folding 18% more T-shirts. But when they tried to lead a more assertive team, the group folded 28% fewer T-shirts.

The authors posit that extroverts, who tend to crave attention, feel threatened when subordinates suggest new strategies and view that as a challenge to their authority. They are more likely to shoot down and discourage creative thinking, ultimately harming the organization.

This has happened countless times in the real world. The authors point to John DeLorean, the brash American entrepreneur who founded the DeLorean Motor Company in the 1970s and created the sleek sports car later made famous by the Back to the Future series. DeLorean himself, though charismatic and ambitious, could not handle anyone disagreeing with him, quashed new ideas, and often took credit for the work of others. The company went bankrupt in 1982 after existing for seven short years.

There are a few implications for businesses based on this research. For one, creating the right mix of employees on a team is far more important than blindly installing an extroverted leader. Managers who are extroverts have to set their egos aside and make an effort to solicit and consider input from subordinates. And employees working under an extrovert may want to seek out a more introverted and receptive manager within an organization if they really want to make themselves heard.