To Get Ahead as an Introvert, Act Like an Extravert. It’s Not as Hard as You Think

Summary: Introverts who act like extraverts are viewed by others as having more leadership potential.

Source: The Conversation

Leadership is a human universal. It can even be seen in other species, which suggests it may be an evolutionarily ancient process.

A common personality trait of “natural” leaders is a higher than average level of extraversion. Research consistently shows extraverts, compared with introverts, are more likely to be regarded as leaders by others, and more likely to obtain leadership roles.

We decided to run an experiment to see if we could turn the leadership tables around by getting introverts to act like extraverts. We also wanted to find out how acting like an extravert makes introverts feel about themselves.

Our results show that introverts who act like extraverts are indeed viewed by others as having more leadership potential. We also found no evidence of psychological costs for introverts.

What we know about extraversion and leadership

Before we get to the specifics of our research, let’s briefly recap the basic science of extraversion and leadership.

Extraversion is a continuum that measures the degree to which someone is enthusiastic, assertive and seeks out social interaction. It is typically included as part of the five-factor model of personality.

The other dimensions – or traits – in the five-factor model include openness (being intellectually curious and creative), conscientiousness (being orderly and industrious), agreeableness (being compassionate and polite), and neuroticism (being sensitive to experiencing negative emotions like anxiety, depression, and anger).

This diagram outlines the big five personality traits and behaviors associated with them
The big five personality traits. Credit: The Conversation

Extraversion has biological roots and is heritable. In others words, part of the reason we find differences in levels of extraversion between people is because there are genetic differences between people that partially determine our personality. Our genes even predict the likelihood we will occupy a leadership position.

We also know that extraverts have a more sensitive dopamine system in their brain. They are wired to find rewards more enticing. They crave social interaction and the attention that comes with it. This fact may partially explain why extraverts are more motivated to obtain leadership roles, given leadership is an inherently social process.

How we did our experiment

Our experiment consisted of 601 participants randomly divided into 166 leaderless groups of typically four people.

We asked these groups to complete a 20-minute joint problem-solving activity (prioritising items needed to survive on the Moon). Participants were not told the purpose of the experiment.

We then split the groups into three “experimental conditions”.

A diagram from the study. Credit: The researchers

In the first (consisting of 53 groups) we randomly selected one person per group to act energetic, talkative, enthusiastic, bold, active, assertive and sociable – in other words, extraverted. These instructions were not known to other group members.

In the second (55 groups), the randomly chosen group member was secretly instructed to act quiet, reserved, lethargic, passive, compliant and unadventurous – in other words, introverted.

The third was our control condition with 58 groups, where no individual instructions were given.

At the of end the activity, participants rated the leadership quality of other group members (and themselves). They also rated how they felt.

We controlled for age, gender and other personality traits using a standard personality test. This ensured we isolated the true effect of extraverted and introverted behaviour.

Acting like an extravert works

The first part of our results were unsurprising. Compared with participants in the control condition, those instructed to act extraverted were rated by others as having more leadership potential. Those instructed to act introverted were rated lower.

What was notable is that these ratings did not depend on “trait extraversion”. In other words, when instructed to act extraverted, both introverts and extraverts were rated higher on their leadership potential compared with an equivalently extraverted person in the control condition.

Equally, we found the participants instructed to act introverted were rated lower on their leadership potential compared with control participants.

But what was particularly interesting was these participants also rated themselves especially poorly on leadership ratings – worse than did their group members. Acting introverted had a particularly negative impact on how those individuals viewed their own leadership potential.

How acting out of character felt

How our “actors” felt after the activity is shown in the next figure.

Compared with the control participants, there was no difference for those who acted extraverted. Even introverts felt perfectly OK after acting like extraverts.

These graphs are from the research paper. Credit: The researchers

The extraverts who acted introverted were a different matter. They had fewer positive and more negative feelings compared with those in the control condition. In short, acting introverted made them feel bad.

Should introverts act out of character to get ahead?

Our research shows introverts can effectively act out of character to obtain and succeed in leadership roles.

If you’re an introvert, you might feel you should not have to. But we suggest that being prepared to adapt your behaviour to the demands of a situation gives you an advantage over those who aren’t.

Nor is it as hard as you may think. Research shows introverts overestimate the unpleasantness and underestimate the “hedonic benefits” of acting extraverted. One study even suggests introverts feel more authentic when acting extraverted.

Knowing extraverted behaviour is usually – though not always – enjoyable can help you feel more confident about “faking” extraverted behaviour in your own best interest.

So lead on – if you want.

Funding: Andrew Spark receives funding from the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP190100848).

Peter O’Connor receives funding from the Australian Goverment through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP190100848)

About this psychology research news

Source: The Conversation
Contact: Andrew Spark and Peter O’Connor – The Conversation
Images: The images are credited to The Conversation and the researchers. Credit given under each image.

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  1. I honestly cannot believe someone waste time and money with such a research. Associating introversion with bad traits,advising people to fake who they are, making introverteds feel they are not good enough to be leaders… I ask you, how is that even ethic?

  2. From my own experience….

    Like others have said, being or acting like someone you’re not is not only exhausting, it’s morally degrading to your own self as it reinforces that your natural ‘being’ isn’t good enough.

    Introverts are sociable, but they need to switch off completely from work to focus on their own interests to recharge. They are highly sensitive and can quickly feel overloaded.

    They are able to read very subtle emotional cues, and can quickly determine whether a work place feels toxic or not.

    A lot of places I’ve worked have been quite toxic because the extroverted boss has shown little or no empathy, are promoted for their own vanity, and have little regard for other people. It’s all one big power vanity show.

    I’ve found very extroverted people in the office to be quite draining as they constantly need interaction. Not that I mind that but often it’s when I’m trying to do something. When they don’t get that interaction they feel disconnected as they (some not all) can’t read what’s going on simply relying on subtle emotional clues.

    Introverts often can formulate plans to tackle tasks methodically and without need to do something because it makes them look good to management. They’ll just do it.

    Ultimately this article just reflects the lack of empathy present to neuro diversity in society by saying ‘hey introvert, you’re current neuro being is not good enough for management, you need to crush your own spirit to get ahead, leave your empathy and sensitivity at the door’

    I should add I know good people who are extroverts, it’s a difficult balancing act,. Both introvert and extrovert have needs. Especially for leadership roles, but I think most introverts are approachable and they often read people and situations to a much greater depth. They just don’t generally largely show it.

  3. Great, another articles telling introverts to be something they are not so that the rest of the world feels comfortable with us. Eyeroll. The article even says introversion is biological, yet you still expect us to change and think there won’t be negative effects? Give your head a shake.

    By the way, being an introvert is not necessarily related to being lethargic, reserved, quiet, etc just means your energy comes from within, rather than other people…

  4. I already commented in length … don’t see it posted? There are articles explaining the exact opposite of what you are saying. The characteristics are not exclusively extrovert traits. Introverts can enjoy short periods of extraversion but it is depleting long term. There are and have been many fine leaders who are introverts. This article is propetuating the idea that to be worth anything you must be an extrovert, it’s nonsense.

  5. There is also reached on how introverts are good leaders without having to be more like extroverts. These behaviors are not exclusively extrovert characteristics. In new social situations people will typically gravitate to the most out spoken person and perceive them as knowledgeable and in control ,that may not be the case… Though I maybe be able to have outward energy For periods of time long term in the wrong setting exhausting. This article is over simplifying this subject.

  6. This whole article (and experiment) is inaccurate and dangerous. It’s a full-on load of crap.

  7. Interesting study! Results are not surprising when I consider my personal experience as an introvert in the workplace. Have always struggled with extroverted bosses who don’t relate to my need for quiet, space to think and speak, “getting stuck in the weeds” of a task. Over the years I’ve learned to “pull on” my ability to be more sociable when needed. My only question about this study’s conclusions surround the idea that introverts feel no negative effects of acting extroverted. We can all do this for short periods when called upon, but what would the cumulative effect be on an introvert’s psyche if they were required by being in a leadership position to be “on” all.the.time?

  8. Several sources such as psychological textbooks and people who have studied and/or taught the subject define introversion and extroversion as whether we gain energy from alone time and lose it when socializing or vice versa. It has nothing to do with if we enjoy either or our behavior. It is indeed a very common thing to define wrongly in casual speech, but in a psychokogical medium…Not to mention merely reading this has been a psychological cost for me, and, to prosaically quote A Clockwork Orange, ‘it’s like your personal thing so how can it be measured?’.

    1. I see it as a light switch to turn on and off when needed. Adaptability is important however I always found it mildly amusing like all species people are willing to listen and follow. You don’t have to be the most intelligent in a room to win a argument, you just have to be convincing. intriguing study?

  9. Wow . . .the introverted behavior is described in such a negative light ( lethargic, passive) while extroverts are described in a much more positive light (enthusiastic, sociable). . .I have to wonder here if the author really has a non-biased grasp on introvert/extrovert qualities. Quite honestly, this is insulting to introverts.

  10. There seems to be an assumption here that “getting ahead” requires being a leader. It’s a case, once again, of extraverts believing that their way is the only (good/effective/positive) way. Does this study take into consideration long-term effects of people acting like something they’re not? If an introvert expends energy by acting extraverted, (or “sociable”), how will they feel after doing so for 8 hours a day, 5 or more days a week?

  11. Clearly an extrovert wrote this dumb article. the whole world is being led to hell right now by a bunch of extroverts. how is that working outo for you. Extroverted fool!

  12. Hi! Nice article, Interesting research. I think extraversion is essential in leadership roles, but mostly empathy and being approachable yo people.

  13. I am of the opinion, that if introverts really do have to act like extroverts to get ahead and succeed, then it is because society as a whole is unable to think outside of the box. We’re blinkered from young and trained to look straight ahead lest we get distracted from our goals and stray from the path. Introverts have much to contribute to society but society isn’t ready. Or society expects plan A to be executed if situation Z and can’t understand or won’t accept when says plan D is better. Introverts are fewer than extroverts so we seldom win when it comes down to the vote. For certain, introverts are often drowned out because extroverts are louder. When two animals fight, the one that makes more noise comes across as more aggressive but might not necessarily emerge the victor. This article demonstrates precisely the way society is geared towards a certain mentality. Heeding too much the loud and flashy. Introverts, in their quiet corners observe much more, process events and people to a greater depth and might even have surprising insights that non-introverts miss. It is a mistake to think that introverts can’t lead unless they fake extroversion. Perhaps the rest of society could benefit to restrain itself a little and stop trying to shout over the introverts. We’re not incapable and we’re not afraid just because we’re inclined to be quieter. People make too many assumptions and they aren’t always correct.

  14. Sure, most introverts will tell you that playing the part of an extrovert for a brief period of time (presentation, party, 20 minute group project) is no big deal, and many may even get a rush doing so. But doing it for hours a day, everyday is going to wear them out–they’re “wired” to be more easily overstimulated than genuine extroverts.

  15. Issues with the information given on the experiment:

    1: Of the participants, how many self-identities as introverts? Further, how many were observed/tested to be introverts.? With this information, how many reported feeling better after acting extroverted vs. introverted?

    2. We’re the participants questioned why they felt better? For example, many may have felt better because they were listened to and valued, but felt worse for being inauthentic.

    3. Being given instructions on how to act poisons the well. Knowledge that it is being tested/observed in this case, which many can easily reason from the instructions, allows for suspension of personal identity without detrimental effect in the short term. Over the long term, though, exhaustion, if not other, more significant mental issues, would be likely.

    In short, pretending to be someone you are not to such an extreme in order to succeed is not healthy. In addition, I cannot condone the tone of victim blaming this article takes. Shameful.

  16. Unpublished this shit. You’re wrong. Dangerously so. Fake it till you make it may earn a good first impression, but behaving inauthentically for an extended period of time is not only physically draining but it’s also psychologically and spiritually destructive, you narrow minded “neurologists”. Get a grip. Grow up. Or better yet… Act like an introvert, because they have the foresight to recognize unhealthy, confidence killing advice such as what you have printed here in a heartbeat.

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