There is no shortage of super successful introvert leaders (Barack Obama and Bill Gates spring to mind), but an absolute mountain of scientific research shows that if your aim is to ascend to leadership, being extroverted is a huge advantage. Studies show extroverts are more likely to be chosen for leadership roles, are viewed more favorably by executives, and even tend to end up earning more.
All of which suggests that people really like to be led by extroverts. But according to fascinating new Harvard research, things aren’t so simple. Extroverts may be valued at work, but it turns out there are big reputational downsides to being considered confident and chatty.
Being friendly is not the same thing as being a good listener.
The study, conducted by researchers out of both Harvard and Stanford and set to be published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, asked 2,500 MBA students and other folks about their opinions of either classmates or acquaintances. Respondents assessed both how extroverted these other people were and whether they were good listeners, genuine, and more or less self-centered. The results weren’t super flattering for extroverts.
In short, respondents viewed extroverts as more interested in monitoring and polishing their own self-image than in really listening to what others had to say.
“When you’re engaging with an extrovert in conversation, they may be gregarious, they may be outgoing, there may be other sociable signs that are positive, but they may also be seen as not paying as much attention,” Harvard researchers and study co-author Julian Zlatev explained. People see extroverts as “hyper aware of the situation around them, trying to come off in a positive way to others, which can sometimes be seen as acting, like being in a situation and not actually being their authentic true self.”
That finding was a bit of a surprise to the researchers who expected people to rate extroverts’ listening skills more highly. But perhaps it would come as such a huge shock to the authors of a previous study that showed introverts actually understand human behavior and psychology better than extroverts do. Why? The study couldn’t provide definitive answers but the authors speculated it’s probably because they spend less time talking and more time listening and observing.
Tips to be an extrovert and a good listener.
Together these studies paint a clear picture of the downsides of being perceived as a social butterfly. Sure, you’re chatty and confident. But other people may also suspect you’re more keen to advance yourself than to really listen to and understand them. People respect your social skills but wonder what part of your outgoing persona is an act and what is genuine.
So what should you do about this if you’re on the more extroverted side of the scale but also value being perceived as honest, empathetic, and interested in others? An HBR Working Knowledge writeup of the research pulls out six essential tips from the research:
Offer verbal cues of listening. Repeat back and paraphrase what someone has just said.
Make use of phrases like “right,” “yes,” and “mm-hmm” in conversation.
Look for other ways to signal engagement–laugh at jokes and be silent when appropriate.
Use a variety of nonverbal cues in conversation. Make eye contact, nod, and smile while talking.
Assume an open posture. Keep your hands apart, not crossed or folded. Directly face the person with whom you are talking.
Mirror the posture of the person with whom you are speaking.
These are, of course, some of the basics of being a good listener. The fact that the researchers seem to think the most extroverted among us need to hear them repeated just underlines the essential takeaway of their study: being an extrovert comes with many advantages, but don’t ignore the potential downsides of being the type to dominate a conversation.
A little extra attention and care paid to others can make extroverts an even more formidable force at work.
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