The Complicated Life of Extraverts as Informal Leaders
Being seen as a leader is an essential part of getting ahead at work. Merely having a job title that designates a leadership role or having people who formally report to you is not enough to achieve influence at work. For leadership to have a meaningful effect, people must perceive you as a leader. But the question is: How?
In business school classrooms, popular books, and media outlets, one common answer to this question lies in behaving like an extravert, which translates into speaking up. Speaking up often tells others that you are competent. Because it would be rude to interrupt others, only one person is often speaking at a time, and the length of this communication signals to others that you are an informal leader and your message deserves to be heard. Dominating conversations has become a known strategy to being seen as an emergent leader.
But in recent years, this relatively simple story of extraversion and emergent leadership has taken a different turn, with a series of studies examining effects that go along with being extraverted. Extraversion concerns the extent to which a person tends to behave in sociable, assertive ways. Being extraverted, one study found, was only helpful up to a point, after which it became detrimental to being seen as a leader. Another showed that behaving in extraverted ways may only be valuable during the early period of relationship formation, after which people come to value other attributes. To complicate matters further, these studies often measured the effects of extraversion at a single point in time or over a relatively short time frame (think days, not weeks or months). But we know that our most important relationships in the workplace often span months or years.
In new research, we explored how the leadership strategies of more extraverted individuals unfold over longer time horizons. Using a social network approach where we asked people to nominate who they perceived as a leader, we tracked what happens to extraverted (and introverted) individuals over time: in one study, we surveyed an incoming class of MBA students a few days into their experience, and then four months subsequent to that; in another, we surveyed full-time employees in an organization twice over a five-month time period. In both studies, we focused on a meaningful metric for being seen as a leader—whether another person counts a person as a leader.
In line with prior work, we found that more extraverted individuals were more likely to be counted as a leader among their peers, and had larger networks of individuals who endorsed their leadership. Unlike prior research suggesting that extraverted qualities may become less relevant over time, our work illustrated that extraverts remained informal leaders at each measurement point. There was also no evidence of a too-much-of-a-good-thing effect, where extraversion impacts leadership perceptions up to a point, after which it becomes detrimental. More extraverted individuals were the ones with the most leadership nominations from others.
But our results also pointed to a dark side of extraversion for emergent leadership. The problem was that, although extraverts were attracting many people who perceived them as leaders, they were also losing many people. This effect is curious because extraverted individuals had larger networks of people who considered them a leader at each time point. Digging deeper into the data, the answer became clearer: Extraverts were also attracting more people over time to replace the people who once considered them a leader but now no longer did, especially those who came from outside their formal hierarchies.
In contrast, the more introverted someone was, the more likely they were to retain those that saw them as leaders over time. While colleagues were less likely to nominate them as leaders, those that did were less likely to change their opinion.
Thus, informal leadership in the workplace is not merely a one-off popularity contest but is a social network that is susceptible to change over time. We highlight several strategies that leaders can take to optimize their leadership networks, in light of this inherent tendency for leader networks to change.
- Think about the leadership network as an investment portfolio that requires rebalancing over time. Leaders may spend significant time with certain individuals in their network, developing stronger relationships with key people. But in doing so, others may look for leadership elsewhere, creating an imbalance where leadership relationships are stronger with some individuals and weaker with others. This raises an opportunity for leaders to ask themselves: Who supports me, and whose support will I need most in the future?
- Take the pulse of your leadership network on a more regular basis. Who has been most active in supporting you and who has been relatively dormant in offering their support? Doing a quick check of who is likely to perceive you as a leader will help you not only detect changes in your network over time, but will allow you to invest more time and energy into people who may be slipping away.
- Introverts are more capable at maintaining their leadership followers and thus we should also learn from them. Sometimes it might be better to take a step back and let others shine. Ask yourself, who can you help to get ahead? Who would profit from your support? Do not always lead from the front, but sometimes from behind.
- For more introverted individuals, how do you compete with more extraverted individuals? Instead of competing, introverted individuals may aim to develop strong, enduring connections among important stakeholders who see them as leaders. This "quality, not quantity" strategy may be easier for introverted individuals to adopt than competing with extraverts in terms of sheer sociability and assertiveness, allowing them to level the leadership playing field.
If there is one thing our research suggests, it is that informal leaders do not occupy stable positions—they are in constant flux, requiring individuals to gain support from new individuals over time. For extraverts, their success in the informal leadership realm is traceable to their ability to earn the support of new followers, even as they lose people who no longer think of them as a leader. Introverts may wish to adopt a different strategy, focusing on a small number of key supporters rather than a large, ever-changing network of followers.
For Further Reading
Anderson, C., & Kilduff, G. J. (2009). Why do dominant personalities attain influence in face-to-face groups? The competence-signaling effects of trait dominance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 491–503. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014201
Hogan, R., Curphy, G. J., & Hogan, J. (1994). What we know about leadership: Effectiveness and personality. American Psychologist, 49, 493–504. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.49.6.493
Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M. W. (2002). Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 765–780. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.87.4.765
Landis, B., Jachimowicz, J., Wang, D., & Krause, R. 2022. Revisiting extraversion and
leadership emergence: A social network churn perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 123, 811-829. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000410
Mullen, B., Salas, E., & Driskell, J. E. (1989). Salience, motivation, and artifact as contributions to the relation between participation rate and leadership. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 25, 545–559. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(89)90005-X