The widely accepted assumption that extraverted individuals are more likely to become leaders because of their communication skills is often mistaken. The reason: extraverted individuals may have the inclination but not necessary the skills to be effective communicators.
One resilient conclusion from leadership commentators and observers is the connection between extraversion and leadership—that is, extraverted individuals are more likely to become leaders than introverted individuals. Leadership research, however, continuously calls into question this conclusion. Consistently over time, the results are mixed: some research will show a link between extraversion and leadership, and other research will not.
Two reasons explain these inconsistent results, according to a team of researchers from Louisiana State University, the University at Buffalo, and Drexel University. The first is the mistaken entanglement by academic researchers of two distinct variables: extraversion and communication skills. One of the theoretical assumptions of much of the research is that extraverted individuals have high communication skills. That assumption is mistaken, however. Some extraverted individuals may indeed have high communication skills, but others will have low communication skills.
The second reason for the inconsistent results on the link between extraversion and leadership, according to the research team, is the impact of the group. The emergence of leadership by extraverted individuals often takes place in the context of team members assessing the leadership qualities of their peers. Ignoring this context can lead to misleading research results.
Through two studies, the research team explores the link between extraversion and leadership while making a deliberate effort to 1) disentangle extraversion from leadership skills and 2) include the context of the team. The two studies involved similar surveys sent to two different sets of participants: a group of 341 undergraduate university students separated into 80 teams of 3-6 students, and a group of 290 undergraduate and MBA students separated into 60 teams. Both studies measured individual extraversion, team extraversion, individual communication skill, and individual leadership emergence.
Extraversion (individual and team), communication skill, and leadership emergence were measured through Likert scale survey responses. For example, “I feel comfortable around people” was one of the statements measuring extraversion, to which participants responded using a 7-point Likert scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree). Similarly, “To what extent did you use rely on [participant ID] for leadership?” was one of the statements measuring leadership emergence, to which participants responded using a 5-point Likert scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 5 = Strongly Agree).
Communication skill was measured in both studies through the use of videos of team discussions, which were viewed by two industrial/organizational psychology students who assessed participants’ communication skills based on a behavioural checklist.
The results of the study show that communication skill and not extraversion was the most consistent predictor of leadership—emphasizing the importance of not conflating the two in future research. The fact that communication skill and extraversion were not even significantly correlated further emphasizes the distinction between the two.
In only one situation was extraversion related to leadership: when the extraversion level of the team was high and the communication skill of the individual was low. Thus, in teams where most individuals are extraverted, and extraversion is thus more highly valued as a reflection of leadership, an individual with lower communication skills can emerge as a leader if that individual is extraverted. Only in the combination of this team context and this individual attribute is extraversion a clear asset in demonstrating leadership. Change the context of the team—i.e., put the individual in a team with few extraverts and, thus, where extraversion is not viewed as a sign of leadership, and the link between extraversion and leadership disappears.
The results of this study have implications for leadership development, notably in self-managing teams where the leadership of team members is paramount. The key to emerging as a leader in the eyes of one’s peers is possessing or developing communication skills—e.g., the ability to speak with confidence and clarity, combined with the appropriate use of non-verbal communication skills and behaviour (such as appropriate eye contact or smiling). Leadership development and training programs should thus focus on these skills to help individuals emerge as leaders in self-managing teams—especially if the individual is more introverted and the team is generally more extraverted.
The research also has a cautionary lesson for managers selecting members of a team. Managers who may favour extraverted individuals in the belief that sociability improves team competence and effectiveness may be overlooking a vital contributor to increasing the level of team leadership.
Tyree Mitchell’s profile at Louisiana State University
James Lemoine’s profile at University at Buffalo
Diana Lee’s profile at Drexel University
Inclined but Less Skills? Disentangling Extraversion, Communication Skill, and Leadership Emergence. Tyree Mitchell, G. James Lemoine, and Diana Lee. Journal of Applied Psychology (September 2022).
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