Opinionista Kurt April 29 June 2021

Move over extroverts and introverts — today’s organisations need ambivert managers and leaders

The Covid-19 pandemic and remote working have worked to the advantage of managers who are introverts. And while traditional personality types each have their distinct advantages, great leadership emanates from the ability to read the room, manage weaknesses, play to your strengths and adapt behaviour.

Kurt April

Professor Kurt April is the Allan Gray Chair and Director of the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.

The debate about whether introverts or extroverts make better leaders is not new, but like everything else during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s taken on renewed significance as managers and executives have had to retreat into their homes along with the rest of the workforce.

Home working seemingly gives the introverted among us a distinct advantage and studies have shown that extroverted people have fared worse through lockdowns and are at higher risk of mental ill health.

So what does this mean for leadership during these strange times? It’s not as simple as stating that introverted leaders are performing better. Karl Moore, Associate Professor at McGill University in Canada and author of a new book, We Are All Ambiverts Now, says that Covid-19 has forced managers and leaders to call upon the strengths of both introversion and extroversion.

Speaking at a recent Allan Gray Speaker Series event hosted by the UCT Graduate School of Business, Moore said that the pandemic has forced those in authority to listen and take feedback in order to provide flexible and empathetic work environments for staff, while also displaying clear and demonstrative enthusiasm to rally and guide their teams through uncertainty.

Ambiverts have the edge

New thinking suggests that ambiverts — those who can lean into their strengths in particular settings — have a distinct advantage over strongly extroverted or introverted personalities, especially when they also have high levels of self-awareness and well-honed socio-emotional skills.

First introduced in 1923 by the psychologist Edmund Smith Conklin, the ambivert concept fell out of favour with academics for a while. In recent years it has undergone a resurgence in popular culture — fuelled by research into the personality type’s application in business by Professor Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, US.

Grant’s research has helped to bust the traditional, stereotypical perspectives of extroverts in the workplace. For instance, while we tend to think of the best salespeople as being extroverted in the extreme, Grant’s work has indicated otherwise. By evaluating the personalities and sales records of 340 salespeople, he found that those who sat partway between introversion and extroversion performed best. They brought in 24% more in revenue than introverts and 32% more than extroverts over a three-month period.

Ambivert salespeople find it easier to segue in different scenarios, helping them to connect more easily and on a deeper level with customers. In other words, they are good listeners who can also muster up the encouragement needed to close a deal.

This is good news, because two thirds of people don’t strongly identify as either introverted or extroverted. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that the stereotypical introvert-extrovert dichotomy is false, dated and simplistic; that personality traits fall along a continuum and that most of us are neither one “type”, nor the other. 

Implications for leaders

Now more than ever as managers and leaders, it is imperative to be fluid — to adapt behaviour to accommodate the personalities, situations and circumstances that they encounter. The trick is to know when to dial up or dial down those typically introverted or extroverted personality traits. That takes self-awareness, the ability to “read a situation”, and discipline.

As well as becoming better managers and leaders, such awareness can deliver benefits to teams and organisations. By developing a better understanding of themselves and what drives them, managers and leaders can, for example, build more balanced teams by ensuring that their recruitment processes are not biased in favour of particular personality types.

As Grant’s work highlighted, people at the extreme ends of the personality continuum do not make the best salespeople. This notion likely holds true for most role types in the modern workplace. Employee training and development programmes should therefore encourage extroverts to hone their listening and empathetic skills, while helping introverts to develop greater assertiveness and show up with “voice” on issues that matter to them. 

Managers and leaders who are dogmatic in their thinking and self-describe themselves as either introverts or extroverts will have a tough time adapting to change — or, to borrow the well-worn buzzword of 2020 — to “pivot”. The ability to sensitively read people and situations and adapt accordingly has never been more important, particularly for personal sustainability, relevance and resilience. DM

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