Leaders, Flex to Your Teams

Isoflex_400Shelly was a senior sales executive, with over 30 years of selling experience in the energy segment. She valued her style as an activist leader, and her ability to leverage years of experience to help her teams beat their objectives.

She had recently taken a position as a global vice president of channel sales, responsible for expanding her company’s partner network.  Because her role was new and important, she had been able to recruit a “dream team” of sales and marketing pro’s with strong track records for building new business quickly.

But…  she was beginning to get disturbing feedback.  Her team had begun to quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, go around her, and complain about her overbearing style, and her limiting of their independence.  Six months after being hailed as the sales leader who would take her company to new levels, she was facing almost a complete rebellion from her team.

What was going on?

It’s no secret.  North Americans and Europeans prefer extroverts as their leaders.  While about half the general population have a natural preference for introversion, over 90% of leaders display extroverted behaviors in their leadership style. That implies that a very large proportion of introverted leaders are flexing outside of their natural behavior to meet the cultural bias for an extroverted style.

While the bias for extroverted leadership is clear, research is telling us that extroverted leaders often run into trouble leading teams of proactive and innovative people.

In a study published in the Harvard Business Review, Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David Hoffman discovered that in organizations where the employees tend to be more passive, extroverted managers excelled, generating about 15% higher than average profit.  (Adam M. Grant 2010)  In contrast, in organizations where the employees were more proactive and independent, extroverted managers didn’t fare as well, generating about 15% lower than average profit. 

Net-net, naturally introverted leaders who can flex to a more integrated style are more likely to succeed with highly proactive teams.

Why would that be?

First of all, natural introverts have more practice in being flexible with how they interact with others.  For most of their life, they have had to integrate extroverted behavior into their consulting and leadership style.  (Cain 2012)

Introverts tend to better listeners, and have less personal need to be perceived as the one with the answer.  As a result, they are more likely to accept and act on the ideas and recommendations from their teams.

Introverts tend to be more willing to take a little more time with their decisions, and wait for more information (including input from their team on the best way forward).

“Wait a minute!”, you might be protesting, “You’re saying that it’s always better to be an introverted leader, rather than an extroverted leader?”

No, that’s really not I’m saying.

I’m saying that research on personality type suggests that the most effective leaders are those who are aware of their natural preferences, and who can make an intentional decision to flex to a different behavior set, better suited to the situation in front of them.

A short aside:  There is no such thing as a 100% extrovert or a 100% introvert.  All of us have a mix of preferred behaviors which fall into both camps.  If the mix is more heavily weighted to introverted behaviors, we are called an introvert.  If the opposite is true, we are called an extrovert.  But we are always a mix of our preferences.

In Shelly’s case, her team wanted less direction and teaching (her natural extroverted behaviors), and more thoughtful discussion about their ideas and their recommendations for how they could achieve their goals.

Here are some tips for flexing to what your team wants and needs from you as a leader:

For leaders who are natural introverts:

Take advantage of your natural tendency toward individual dialogue to hear your people fully.

Give yourself enough time to reach a joint assessment of a situation and the optimum path forward.

When appropriate, flex to more assertive behavior when dealing with your senior leadership, sources of resources, and customers who you know expect that from you.

For leaders who are natural extroverts:

Be aware that your preference for independent thinking and directive communication will probably not be well received by independent thinkers.

Develop your effectiveness in having one-to-one conversations.  Ask open ended questions, actively listen to the answers, and provide enough feedback so that your teams have confidence that you understand and agree.

Be willing to make an intentional decision in the moment to flex to a less directive approach with proactive teams.  Give your proactive team members room to assert their ideas and opinions, and engage in a more collegial discussion with them, as compared to a more traditional manager-subordinate discussion.

Epilogue:

Leadership success is less about being an extrovert or introvert than it is about being able to adapt to the behavior that is most effective in the situation, time frame, and team that you find yourself acting and leading in.

Success is about being able to flex smoothly to where you need to be.

Thanks for reading!  I’d love to get your help to continue the discussion with your comments.

End Notes:

Adam M. Grant, F. G., David A. Hofmann (2010) The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses. Harvard Business Review

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet:  the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York, Crown Publishers.