News flash! Neurotics are conscientious team members and should be appreciated and used more effectively in organizations. Or so say Corinne Bendersky, an associate professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and Neha Parikh Shah, an assistant professor at Rutgers Business School, in The Downfall of Extraverts and the Rise of Neurotics: The Dynamic Process of Status Allocation in Task Groups.
The study uses a different polarity than one might expect. It looks not as introverts versus extroverts but “neurotics” versus extroverts. For instance, “[I]mplicit theories of leadership tend to associate positive status value with assertiveness and negative status value to anxiety, which is a facet of neuroticism” Frankly, I don’t see this being anywhere near as tidy a distinction as Bendersky and Shan. McKinsey made a point of hiring people who were anxious but client-presentable, which meant they had to be extraverted or at least able to fake it credibly.
Nevertheless, the paper makes some interesting observations when you do have people who fit neatly into those categories. The extroverts are preferred, both by employers (look at how candidates for many jobs are virtually required to stress how they are upbeat, can do, team oriented, etc.) and in their initial assessment by team members. In a write-up of the article, Susan Adams at Forbes reminds us of widely-held beliefs:
Most leaders are attracted to the guy or woman who seems confident and outgoing, unafraid in any situation or facing any challenge. They expect an extrovert to infuse any team with energy, to push ahead on projects and to motivate colleagues to do their best work. Meantime they have low expectations of anyone who appears neurotic, who seems withdrawn and too anxious to live up to their potential. Leaders expect neurotic employees to contribute little and to drag down colleagues’ morale.
The requirement to be chipper and upbeat is so fetishized that accusing someone of “negativity” is a cheap but usually effective way to shut them up. In keeping, when teams of MBAs were formed in one of the experiments conducted in the study, the extroverted folk were initially given high ranking by their peers and the quieter, nebishy types, low ones.
Now what did Bendersky and Shah see? Contrary to the widespread finding in the literature that workplace status is based on “enduring personal characteristics” (ahem, if so, why is there office politics?), after 10 months of working together, team members found that the extroverts didn’t pull their weight, while the more introverted members did, leading to a revision in status rankings. The extroverts fell short of expectations and the quiet, conscientious workers exceeded them.
And it isn’t that the expectations of the extroverts were unduly high. As the authors out, previous studies have found that some of the habits of extroverts are detrimental to teamwork:
Research on the “dark sides” of extraverted behaviors finds that with experience working together, peers interpret extraverts as poor listeners who are unreceptive to input from others. For example. Grant et. al. (2011) determined that when subordinates are pro-active (e.g., they voice constructive ideas, take charge to improve work methods and exercise upward influence), groups with more extraverted leaders are less effective due to heightened competition and conflict.
Now it isn’t as if this is the first time studies have found that extroversion isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, instructed his researchers not to look at top management behaviors, but as they continued their work, they insisted he include it, because the companies they identified as sustained superior performers (most often by having made a radical change in their business model when the entire industry was facing fundamental threats) were managed very differently that most companies. The CEOs in these businesses were the polar opposite of the celebrity leader that headhunters prize: they were quiet, self-effacing, quick to take blame for failure and to share credit for success. Oh, and they paid themselves modestly.*
And this isn’t the first time that widely held recruiting rules of thumb have been found to be wrong. As we wrote in 2007:
Consider the experience of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, the hero of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The baseball industry has always measured players’ skill and achievements by a handful of well-known statistics, but in recent years researchers have questioned the value of those traditional measures. To make the most of a limited budget, Beane used the new principles to sign low-salaried play- ers whom his analysis showed were dra- matically undervalued. The result: The team, with one of baseball’s lowest pay- rolls, has placed first or second in its divi- sion each of the last eight seasons (and there’s still time to turn around 2007).
Here, then, you have a business where the recruiting is unusually transparent, the basic rules have remained unchanged for decades, competitive encounters are in full view, and the incentives for success are high. This would seem to be the per- fect environment for developing good decision rules, yet the entire industry was largely wrong.
But there is another set of issues involved. Our society is increasingly placing a premium on sales skills, and in another misguided heuristic, managers typically seek out extroverts for sales jobs and most parents seem to emphasize building their child’s self esteem (trust me, in the 1950s, this was not on the radar). In a work world of short job tenures, prizing salesmanship might seem necessary. But equating it with extroversion agains is misguided. Another recent Forbes article cites research that finds that the best salespeople are ambiverts, confident and sociable enough to chat up prospects and assert control during a pitch, but able to listen to a prospect’s concerns. So on a broader social basis, our culture may be extolling (and therefore promoting) traits that aren’t necessarily advantageous, not just for the team, but even the individual.
Of course, so much management practice is based on unadulterated blather (Lucy Kellaway at the Financial Times has full time job eviscerating it, and she’s unlikely ever to run short of targets) that it should probably come as no surprise that such a basic assumption about personal attributes is so wrong. But sadly, that means, like so many other business prejudices, that it is unlikely to change any time soon.
*If you don’t think CEOs wield significant influence over their own compensation by recommending board members and overseeing the HR department that pays the firms that do the comp studies (and influencing who gets chosen for the work), I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.