The Un-extrovert

Posted by jlubans on November 28, 2010

The December issue of the Harvard Business Review includes an interesting leadership study: “The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses.
I took to the study less for its implication that a quiet boss can be superior to the extrovert but more for what the research has to say about leader and follower relationships. The researchers had small teams (N = 163 college students) doing a timed exercise in folding T-shirts.

“Each group had a leader and four followers, two of whom were research assistants posing as followers. To manipulate the behavior of the leaders, we had each read a statement before the activity began: Some read a statement extolling extroverted leaders (like … Martin Luther King, Jr.); others read a statement praising reserved leaders (like … Abraham Lincoln).”

“(And) … some of the researcher-followers stopped their groups after 90 seconds and suggested a better way to do the task. The groups with proactive followers performed better under an introverted leader—folding, on average, 28% more T-shirts.”

“The extroverted leaders appeared threatened by and unreceptive to proactive employees. The introverted leaders listened carefully and made employees feel valued, motivating them to work hard.”(Emphasis added, Ed.)

This study took me back to an outdoor learning experience I describe in Chapter 32 of my book: “Productivity in Libraries? Managers Step Aside!” One bright, crisp Fall day, we (a co-facilitator and I) were in the woods with a team of MBA students working through a day of team building and group problem solving activities. Of the ten students, two of the males dominated - a not atypical criticism of the overly extrovert leader. We muted both during a game called “Hot Stuff”, an intense activity requiring cooperation and creativity from everyone. With the two domineering extroverts muted, the group was now on its own in spite of the animated gesticulating by the silent extroverts. Not surprisingly, the person who had been most quiet that afternoon took part in the group discussion, analyzed the possibilities and came up with a very good solution. During the de-brief at the end of the activity, the two extroverts denied that the solution the group chose and implemented was the best one – instead they claimed had they not been muted their solution would have been better! Perhaps.
And, perhaps, after reflection, those two extroverts learned something about letting others take the lead.

When a manager asks me how to get reluctant followers to take part, to engage, to take responsibility I ask him or her to consider the library’s culture and values. Are experts more valued than workers? Are bosses expected to have the answers? Are workers respected and included in workflow design or is that work for managers only? What I try to get across is that we can say we want an empowered staff, but unless we demonstrate it - e.g. if extroverts/experts restrain themselves from hogging discussion and claiming credit – we will not achieve the full potential that resides in an educated and motivated work force.

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