Introverts may miss leadership chances because they overestimate how stressful it will be

GettyImages-637902386.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

There are certain situations where it’s advantageous for an introvert to take charge. For instance, perhaps they are better qualified than their extroverted peers. The trouble is, most introverts tend to shy away from seizing informal leadership opportunities when they arise (psychologists call this “emergent leadership” – when someone takes charge in a team without a formal hierarchy).

A new study in Personality and Individual Differences suggests this might be because introverts expect to find group tasks and situations unpleasant, which inhibits them from displaying the kind of behaviours required to take charge of their group. By helping introverts to realise they may enjoy leadership more than they expect, Andrew Spark and his colleagues at Queensland University of Technology say it may be possible to encourage more introverts to step up to the plate.

The findings come from a study of nearly 200 undergrad business students who completed personality tests prior to a group task devised by NASA which involves making decisions together about survival priorities on the moon. Before they started the group task, the students rated how much they thought they would find it fun and exciting or scary and stressful. Afterwards they rated each other for signs of emergent leadership during the task, such as “he/she influenced group decisions” or “he/she led the group conversation”.

As expected, introverts showed less emergent leadership than extraverts. What’s more, compared with extraverts, they also expected to experience much more negative emotion and feelings during the group task. These two factors seemed to be related: when fully accounting for any differences in participants’ negative expectations, introversion was no longer associated with less emergent leadership. The researchers’ methodology can’t prove that negative expectations cause introverts to refrain from showing leadership, but their findings are consistent with that interpretation.

Citing earlier research that suggests introverts find acting extraverted more enjoyable than they think they will, Spark and his team suggest that perhaps introverts will also enjoy leadership-related behaviours more than they anticipate. “If introverts can develop strategies to more accurately forecast their enjoyment of behavior more conducive to emergent leadership,” the researchers said, “then it is possible that such individuals will be on a level playing field with extraverts in relevant social situations”. However, the researchers added “these possibilities are somewhat speculative at this point”.

The failure of introverts to emerge as leaders: The role of forecasted affect

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest