Whether organisations, leaders and individuals are aware or agree with it or not, the collective belief to this question is an overwhelming ‘yes’. Of the 114 people who responded to a survey before attending the Quietly Powerful Women’s (QPW) events, a whopping 92% feel that they have to be extroverted to progress in their careers. Many of these women feel exhausted from having to put on the extroverted persona to get ahead. Even ambivert (mix of introvert and extrovert) and extrovert women have told me that they feel exhausted!

This is not limited to the 114 survey respondents. A USA Today poll showed that 65% of executives indicated introversion was a barrier to rising through the corporate ranks.

“It seems counter-intuitive, but introverts and closet introverts populate the highest corporate offices, so much so that four in 10 top executives test out to be introverts,” states Del Jones on USA Today, who continues, “successful introverts seem to have mastered the ability to act like extroverts.”

So the message we hear is “If you are introverted, you must learn to act like an extrovert or you won’t make it.” Some of us accept that as a reality and work hard to put on the extrovert face. Others of us find it too difficult and give up, many of whom are highly talented and are able to bring different perspectives and approaches to leadership.

So there are a few issues here:

There is clearly a perception that we need to be extroverted to get ahead. In many organisations, talented people are overlooked or misunderstood. For some, they are even more disadvantaged due to gender, race and other ‘minority’ characteristics.

Introverted people who do try and get ahead are often ‘closet’ introverts so many people don’t know that they are exhausted acting as an extrovert. The problems is that:

  • Some of these leaders burn out.
  • These leaders may not leverage their natural strengths effectively, as they and others devalue quieter qualities which can be enormous leadership strengths (see Quietly Powerful – an oxymoron or truth)
  • Because people only see the extroverted side of these leaders, the belief that we have to be extroverted to get promoted persists. 70% of the QPW survey respondents said they know zero, one or not many senior leaders who are quieter women.
  • Because of this belief, many talented introverts give up before they even try, “I won’t be considered because I’m introverted.”

From an organisational standpoint, is it better to have extroverted leaders? There is research showing a correlation between organisational performance and introverted CEO’s (See article Companies headed by introverts performed better in a study of thousands of CEO’s). “In a dynamic, unpredictable environment, introverts are often more effective leaders—particularly when workers are proactive, offering ideas for improving the business,” according to Adam Grant, Francesca Gino and David A. Hofmann who wrote The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses in HBR.

Add to the mix a picture shared by Robert R. McCrae and Antonio Terraccianoon on National Character and Personality shows introversion/extroversion norms by nationality.

Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and English are shown as the most extroverted. So when working with cultural differences in the organisation, with clients or trading partners, over-valuing extroversion is not helpful.

Extrovert and introvert qualities are both valuable. Why, then, should the advantages of quieter bosses be hidden? Similarly, with other qualities such as masculine/feminine, rational/emotional and structured/flexible, there is a need to value and access a range of qualities rather than one more than the other. This bias towards some qualities over others is hindering progress on gender, cultural and other diversity initiatives as well.

Isn’t it time we started expanding what we see as good leadership so that we have greater diversity in leadership styles? With an environment of uncertainty, disruption, complexity, need for innovation and reinvention, surely diversity in leadership style cannot be a ‘nice to have’?

Related articles:

Are you ‘covering’ your quieter self?

Why we tell ourselves “I can’t” rather than “I can”

Quietly Powerful – an oxymoron or truth

White paper: Quietly Powerful – be heard, get ahead and make a difference without feeling fake as a quieter professional woman