Bad Boss BS: “It’s because I’m an extrovert.”
People have stereotypes about certain roles and bossing is no exception. Whether it’s the officious drillmaster or the inspiring speech-maker, it can sometimes feel like all good bossing involves extrovert tendencies. But is that true? Is there room for introverted bosses?
The problem of pairs
Thinking about the extremes of two ends of a spectrum can help simplify the complexity of the real world. Forming broad, contrasting categories is useful for pattern matching. And having templates ready to compare a “category” with our current situation can save time when we’re trying to work out what to do next. Most of us have a bank of these categories and they form unconscious biases that further reinforce our beliefs and values. That comes with the benefit of efficiency, but there are also obvious dangers.
It’s probably because of the popularity of Myers-Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI) that people sometimes think about introversion and extroversion as two extreme, mutually exclusive categories that we can use to sort and categorise people. Myers Briggs talks about these characteristics as being opposite ways to direct and receive energy. This can lead us into a trap of thinking of them as opposites and mutually exclusive, rather than just different categories of behaviour and preference. They’re not mutually exclusive, they’re just patterns or groups of behaviour that we “tend” towards.
Last week I wrote about ’Strength/Weakness pairs’. The power in this way of thinking isn’t a focus on opposites, it’s the ability to identify “the space between” — the spectrum between different ways of seeing and being in the world. In ‘Strength/Weakness pairs’ it’s about moderating an extreme behaviour to add versatility to the way we do things. It’s rare that an “extreme” version of a behaviour is the most useful form. This is also the case with extroversion and introversion. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that bosses should be extrovert. How else will they lead? But like with most behaviours, an extreme form of this preference and behaviour will usually result in problems.
If a boss can develop a range of strategies and behaviours between introversion and extroversion, they increase their effectiveness in different situations and are able to work with and lead people with different preferences of their own.
The two extremes
‘Extroversion’ describes a tendency to be energised by the outside world. Interacting with people and taking action motivates this mindset. ‘Introversion’ sees energy generated more from activities focused internally — reflecting on ideas, memories and experiences. It should be clear that a boss needs both of these — (re)action and reflection. But having a preference for either one will lead to different ways of bossing.
‘Extroversion’ will likely describe a boss with a preference towards action. Their usual way of operating is a “do-think-do” cycle. They might even act first and think later. This might lead to post-rationalising actions, which can be frustrating and feel disingenuous.
They’re probably involved in more things. They like participating in tasks. This might pull them closer to those they lead and manage. But it might feel like micromanagement or inappropriate at times. They might become impatient and bored with long, slow jobs or when progress is gradual. But they’re usually genuinely interested in others, so they’re likely to engage even if they are bored — though they might do so in a way that’s distracting and unhelpful.
It’s likely we’ll label a boss who is a great communicator an extrovert. They’ll develop ideas by discussing them with others and they’ll like having people around to collaborate with. They communicate with energy and enthusiasm. They often don’t need long to respond if asked a question — they might “think out loud.” This means you can see their thought process. But sometimes it might not be clear and they might need to moderate their delivery to help others understand and participate. They likely dominate discussion and team meetings and conversations. They’re probably uncomfortable with silences, and fill them, sometimes missing out on thinking time for themselves and others.
There’s lots in there to admire in a boss. But there are also traps that will make a boss less effective. And most worrying, if you mix these preferences in the wrong way, you diminish the benefits and inherit a set of weaknesses. A boss drawn towards an extreme set of these behaviours forces their team into responding in certain ways. The boss will tend to fill a space, this makes it more difficult for others to find their own space and contribute.
‘Introversion’ can describe a different set of behaviours and preferences. Firstly, more action happens on the inside when we’re in an introverted mindset. It’s well suited to deep thinking and concentration. It affords focus and reflection. Introversion moves towards a “think-do-think” cycle, the preference is for analysis and reflection. This might pull the boss towards quiet, private spaces and ways of working at times. And it might see them more comfortable working on one project for a long time — a steady marathon rather the variety of lots of context switching.
Collaboration and working with others might look and feel different. It’s likely that the social aspects of leadership might be more draining, rather than energising. This boss might find it more challenging to communicate. But they’ll likely be able to derive value and energy by focusing on facts and ideas behind the work. Focused conversations engage introverts. They’ll excel when they have time to think, reflect and analyse to synthesise and systematise their thoughts and response before sharing it. They’re more likely to shine in 1:1 conversations rather than large group discussion. This style of leadership will likely look more cautious. If they’re going to speak, a boss drawn towards introversion will often be the last to speak, having paused and reflected before responding.
Again, we see a mixture of inherent strength and areas that need more thoughtful, considered application and adaptation. Introversion encourages a depth of thinking that is often needed from a boss. Bosses need the ability to focus, reflect and analyse. Their ability to confidently inhabit the quieter moments will likely build trust, despite at times them finding interactions with others more challenging.
The greatest showman
There’s a common psychological phenomena where people give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of themselves that they think are highly tailored, but are in fact, wholly generic. One name for these statements are ‘Barnum statements,’ named after P. T. Barnum. A classic Barnum statement is:
“There are times when you are the life and soul of the party and an extrovert, but at other times you tend to be introverted and quite reserved.”
I’m guessing that if a “psychic” dropped this into the flow of a description of you, it would get a little nod. Humans are complex. Imagining that we can all be sorted into two opposing buckets is dangerous and misleading. We respond to our context, the people around us, what we had for breakfast — we all of us contain multitudes.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that bosses need to be extroverts. They don’t. Bosses need adaptability — and we all have it. We all have preferences too. A boss needs to understand their preferences, and the impact they’re likely to have on others. They also need the social literacy and empathy to understand the preference of others, so that they can adapt to get the best out of the people they lead or manage.
MBTI frames extroversion and introversion as preferences for where we get our energy. Understanding where we get our energy will help us understand how we can recharge and what activities we might find more draining. This can be useful to maintain our health as well as our effectiveness.
The truth is, anyone can be a boss. But the best bosses will be able to navigate their preferences and extend their repertoire of skills and behaviours so that they can be effective in more settings and when working with a greater variety of people. We all have this capacity.
Labels can empower or disempower. And the danger of thinking of ‘introversion’ and ‘extroversion’ as describing different types of people, instead of different sets of behaviour and preference is that we limit our options. By understanding our preferences and the preferences of those around us we’re better able to consciously direct our effort and attention to increase our effectiveness.
The stories that we tell ourselves, the labels we use and the categories that we adopt — or let others projects us into — can either empower or disempower us. Bad bosses might be the victim of this sort of labelling or external projection. They might do it to us. Some of the tools that I’ve already written about in the bad boss blog series can help knock us out of “automatic” or default behaviours. When we’re more intentional in the way we act and respond, we expand and recognise more potential in every situation.