Features | From Pivot Magazine

Who fares better in the office: extroverts or introverts? 

Research indicates extroverts have the edge, but it’s not that simple 

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illustration showing loud person on phone sitting opposite to quiet person wearing headphones  Companies can benefit from cultivating both extrovert and introvert employees and leaders—it’s a matter of maximizing their talents through tailored teams and environments (Illustration by Leeandra Cianci)

I can be an incredibly quiet person. I often clam up in big groups, fumble through small talk at parties and fall into comfortable silences (well, comfortable for me). If I’m not leading a team meeting at work, I’m usually the contemplative one, listening and assessing before I share my own thoughts. I know that sometimes my quietness can be mistaken for shyness or, worse, a sign that I’m not engaged—even as I furiously scribble down notes and ideas. Since I was a teenager, supervisors have remarked that I need to be louder, more outspoken, more extroverted. They’re the same people who think they’re helping when they encouragingly ask, “What do you think, Lauren?”

Over the years, I’ve taken to heart the repeated feedback that my introverted tendencies are my greatest weakness. I’ve pushed myself to be more gregarious in the workplace. Admittedly, my track record has been fairly spotty. I’ve become less disastrous at public speaking; people often now remark, blessedly having no insight into my sweat glands, that I’m a natural. While I still do better in small groups, I no longer spend entire office days in silent solitude. Recently, an acquaintance expressed disbelief when I made an offhand remark about my own quietness. I was ridiculously pleased. Still, it made me wonder: is it really so bad to be an introvert at work? Are quiet people actually erasing themselves from career advancement?

Two recent studies in the Journal of Applied Psychology indicate the answer is both yes and no. Research has a long, seesawing history when it comes to declaring which personality type has the workplace advantage. In many cases, the deciding factor comes down to workplace culture and contemporary societal values. As author Susan Cain put it in her 2012 TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts,” which has now been viewed more than 22 million times on the TED website, many modern institutions are designed primarily for extroverts. From our workplaces to our schools, she argues, both group work and speaking out are prioritized—to the detriment of independent, creative thinking. So no wonder a 2019 study of nearly 100 meta-analyses found that extroversion had a consistent, albeit small, advantage over a person’s lifetime.

Led by University of Toronto academic Michael Wilmot, the study defined extroverts as people who are talkative and gregarious, prefer to take charge, express positive emotion and enjoy stimulating activities. A textbook introvert, on the other hand, is quiet, emotionally reserved, less energetic and harder to get to know. Based on those prototypical traits, researchers concluded, extroversion has a positive effect in 90 per cent of the most studied variables—such as levels of workplace enthusiasm, assertiveness and positivity—that influence a person’s career. All across the spectrum, they added, extroverts have motivational, intrapersonal, emotional and performance advantages. In a world that values loudness, they are repeatedly seen as good leaders.

Author Susan Cain defines an introvert as someone who prefers quieter, more minimally stimulating environments.

That doesn’t mean introverts are doomed. People with introverted tendencies, the study’s authors write, “should not interpret our findings to suggest that they will inevitably be at a disadvantage. To the contrary, numerous examples could be given of introverts who perform masterfully and achieve greatly.” There’s more positive news for those of us who are terminally quiet: another 2019 Journal of Applied Psychology study found that, as with most things in life, too much extroversion can be a bad thing. Or, rather, an annoying thing. 

The study, led by Jasmine Hu at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, confirmed that people tend to like extroverted leaders better and sought their advice more often—but only up to a point. The study’s participants—undergraduate students and employees at a large retail company in China—thought less of “very warm” or “very assertive” co-workers. They felt those who were too friendly put pressure on them—whether consciously or not—to respond in the same enthusiastic way, and that overly assertive people were pushy. 

Other studies have found that introverted leaders also have their own strengths. They’re often more creative and idea-driven; they’re self-motivated. And, in unpredictable environments, introverts can be more effective, according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant. His research shows that introverts listen carefully, show greater receptivity to suggestions and encourage others on their team to proactively share ideas—all things that make extroverts feel threatened.

Ultimately, as Cain argues in her bestselling book, Quiet, the real lesson in all of this is to stop encouraging people to quash their fundamental natures. It isn’t employees who have to change; it’s their organizations. Companies can benefit from cultivating both extrovert and introvert employees and leaders—it’s a matter of maximizing their talents through tailored teams and environments. Besides, nobody is 100 per cent extrovert or introvert. Nobody is on or off all the time. We all exist on a scale, preferring quiet or company, high-energy or low, depending on the mood and situation. In fact, there’s a whole other, unsung personality that gets little attention: the ambivert—the middle of the spectrum, and arguably where many of us truly exist. So, go ahead. Stop talking. Or, you know, start.