While the press and recent research have popularized the idea that the most effective leaders are assertive extraverts like Virgin’s Richard Branson and Oracle Corp.’s Larry Ellison, new UNC Kenan-Flagler research finds that this is not always true.
In a study that may be a boon for those who tend to be a little less extraverted, David Hofmann, Hugh L. McColl Scholar in Leadership and area chair of organizational behavior, found that certain types of groups perform better working for less extraverted leaders.
Hofmann’s work found that employees who are very proactive and who take steps to improve work processes and practices perform better when working for leaders who were less extraverted. On the other hand, more passive employees perform better when working for more directive, extraverted leaders.
“Our findings reveal how leader extraversion — frequently assumed to be a universally positive trait for leaders — can be a liability in certain situations,” Hofmann said. “By being receptive to employees’ efforts to voice ideas and take charge to improve work methods, less extraverted leaders can boost group performance. In settings and situations in which proactive suggestions are important, leaders who naturally tend to be assertive may wish to adopt a more reserved, quiet style.”
There is extensive evidence that extraverts are more likely to emerge as leaders and receive high ratings of effectiveness from superiors and subordinates. But Hofmann’s research found that leadership style can have a profound impact on group performance and a company’s bottom line.
In the study, a national pizza chain posted higher profits in stores where relatively passive employees were paired with more extraverted leaders. On the other hand, when employees were proactive, the stores led by less extraverted leaders earned high profits. Meanwhile, profits were lower in stores where extraverted managers led proactive employees and introverted managers led passive employees.
This is because extraverted leaders may perceive proactive employees as a threat to their leadership, and a power struggle may ensue with the leader becoming more forceful and not listening to the suggestions of the employees. This, in turn, alienates the employees and performance declines.
Alternatively, when a less extraverted leader is paired with proactive employees, the leader is more likely to listen to and value the employees’ suggestions and proactivity. This increases their identification with and commitment to the leader, resulting in increased performance.
With respect to leadership development, extraverted leaders need to be aware that sometimes tempering their style can be an effective approach. Viewing proactive employees not as threats but as committed employees trying to help the organization, listening to and valuing their contributions, and acting on their good ideas can result in a positive performance cycle.
For employees, the findings suggest that proactive behaviors may be more effective with quieter leaders who are more receptive. It may be wise, then, for employees to make particular efforts to voice suggestions, take charge, and exert upward influence when working with less extraverted leaders. Employees may also seek out such leaders as audiences for their proactive ideas.