Knowledge Center: Article

Introvert or Extrovert: What Style Is More Likely to Help You Get a Big Promotion at Work?

3/6/2014

Introvert or extrovert: The age-old debate never seems to go away. Which are you? And which is better, particularly for advancing your career?

Made famous in modern day business by the renowned Myers-Briggs personality test, a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions, roughly 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies have administered this test, and millions of people have taken it. A key outcome is one of two letters -- an I (introvert) or an E (extrovert). Anyone who has ever taken this personality test knows by heart whether they're an introvert or an extrovert. It's a badge that stays with them -- and their colleagues -- for the rest of their career. That's an awful lot of power bestowed on a 15 minute test. Hopefully then, when you get your test results back, you're on the right side of the "I/E" continuum!

But that begs the question. Which side is "right?"

Are introverts or extroverts more likely to succeed in business? Which type is more likely to get promoted? Which type is more likely to reach the vaunted corner office? Individuals taking the Myers-Briggs test, as well as curious HR decision-makers who want to promote the right person, create the best teams and solidify the perfect corporate culture, repeatedly ask these questions.

For decades most have assumed that extroverts are better equipped to succeed in the business world, because of their natural charisma, outgoing style and engaging personality. But is this really the case? More recently, some pundits like Susan Cain have counter-intuitively argued that introverts are the ones with the upper hand, and it's been that way for a long time. Take, for example, great political leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi, or business giants new and old, such as Mark Zuckerberg or Warren Buffet.

Even in sports, the super-flashy National Basketball Association (NBA) has has seen a monumental shift in power. David Stern, the highly charismatic, extroverted commissioner for 30 years has handed over control to his successor Adam Silver, who is much quieter and introverted, but every bit as respected. Finicky team owners and superstar players alike praise Silver for his ability to listen, display more empathy, and create strong connections. League officials say Silver has a laser like focus which allows him to cut through the noise and clutter, another quality often attributed to introverts.

But wait, we still haven't answered the question: What's better, introversion or extroversion at work? After decades -- perhaps even centuries -- of asking the question, why is there still no definitive answer?

Because it's a trick question!

In depth conversations with hundreds of executives around the world has made it clear to me that people with the greatest probability of getting promoted -- over and over during their career -- demonstrate qualities of both extroversion and introversion. Each quality is crucial, regardless of your natural predisposition. It's not as cut and dry as an either/or game. On the contrary, it's an "and" game. We all know that business is highly contextual. Individuals who leverage their empathy to size up an interpersonal situation, and are capable of demonstrating qualities of both extroversion and introversion have the highest probability of making the biggest impact.

There is a good word to describe the "and" versus "either/or" phenomenon being described -- ambiversion. Ambiverts can effectively shuttle back and forth between the polar opposites of the introversion and extroversion continuum with grace, speed and efficiency. Even though it's anything but easy, ambiverts make it look effortless to the casual observer. They're the ones that seem to fit in to any situation. In today's complex and unpredictable business climate, you need to be an ambivert to connect with wildly different personality types all with underlying agendas, motivations and values.

Ambiverts can immerse themselves within large groups -- mingling with the crowd, collecting new ideas, building support and buy-in -- and then retreat to isolation, where they focus and reflect on what they've seen and what matters. Amidst this peace and quiet they can be mindful and make sense of everything and how all the pieces could -- and should -- fit together in novel, well-constructed ways.

One could reasonably ask if this shifting between introverted and extroverted behavior is fake? Are people being phony, "fake it until you make it" as the saying goes? After all, how can an introvert be -- or even act extroverted? How can an extrovert calm down and miraculously become more laser focused? Is this even possible? And if it is, does it destroy authenticity?

Not at all.

Authenticity originates from a keen self-awareness that leads to a higher purpose, or what some experts like Nick Craig and Bill George call a "true north" -- creating value, providing a direction, or creating a warm, collaborative culture are examples. An individual is much more likely to get promoted if she adheres to a higher purpose, consistent with but well beyond her own personal agenda. Even with this higher purpose, shuttling back and forth between introversion and extroversion can be taxing. It requires plenty of psychological flexibility.

It's almost always a positive developmental experience to stretch beyond your comfort zone. Stretching widens your perspective, sharpens empathy and builds resiliencpe. One word of caution -- bend don't break. If you stretch too far or too hard, emotional fatigue will inevitably set in. Resilience will help you bounce back, to be sure. But finely-tuned self-awareness should set off warning signals, when you stretch and bend too far, that it's time to find a safe place and recharge. For an introvert, this could well be the solace and comfort of a quiet office. For an extrovert, this could mean spending time with trusted colleagues or a significant other.

Regardless of your natural predisposition, you will discover that leadership effectiveness -- as well as increasing job responsibility -- will come your way much more often if you learn how to embrace both extroversion and introversion. Be contextual and flexible, and take advantage of your natural empathy. Assess the various situations and adjust accordingly. Don't be afraid to shuttle back and forth between what seem like polar opposite extremes. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable, stretching outside of your natural comfort zone. Make every effort to fit in while still being true to yourself.

In short, learn how to become an ambivert. Perhaps Myers Briggs needs to add the letter "A" to it's famous I/E typology. More than any others, the "As" are most likely to get the next big promotion.