When it comes to the perfect leader, extrovert isn’t always best
The Sector > Workforce > Leadership > When it comes to the perfect leader, extrovert isn’t always the way to go

When it comes to the perfect leader, extrovert isn’t always the way to go

by Freya Lucas

May 07, 2019
Walking on the horizon

Extroverts – people thought of as outgoing, socially confident, who “recharge” by spending time in the company of others and enjoy being around people – are often seen as ‘natural leaders’. A new study from the Ohio State University suggests that in some cases, extroversion in leaders may be “too much of a good thing”.


Instead, researchers said, leaders were better liked and more sought after for advice when they hit a middle “sweet spot” on levels of assertiveness and warmth – two facets of extroversion.


Leaders who were too high on the assertiveness or warmth scale were less popular with their team members. For the purposes of the study, assertiveness was defined as “the desire to be dominant and forceful” and warmth as “how friendly and outgoing they were”.


Leaders who were overly extroverted “can come across as ‘pushy’ or ‘too annoying’” lead author Jia Hu said. She did note, however, the distinction between warmth and prosocial motivation – a desire to look out for the welfare of others.


Interestingly, the study found that highly extroverted leaders received better marks from their teams when they demonstrated prosocial motivation. It would seem, from the findings, that whilst being “friendly” can put team members off, leaders who genuinely have concern about the wellbeing of their team score more favourably with their peers.


The leadership study was conducted with undergraduate students, who were randomly assigned to 78 self-managed teams. The students worked in their teams on a variety of projects through a full semester.


At the beginning of the semester, students rated themselves on two facets of extroversion – assertiveness and warmth.


The students’ prosocial motivation was measured by asking them how much they agreed with statements like “I care about benefiting others through my work.”


Later in the semester, students rated each member of their team on how much they showed leadership in their group activities. Based on these ratings, the researchers chose the person on each team who was seen by most of their peers as the leader.


Team members also rated how much they liked each of their team members and how much they went to him or her for advice in solving problems related to their tasks.


A second, nearly identical study involved 337 employees on work teams in a large retail company in China. Like with the students, these were self-managed teams without formal leaders.


Both studies yielded similar results – leaders who were extroverted tended to be better liked and more sought after for advice by their team members – but only up to a point.


Leaders who rated themselves as very assertive or very warm tended to see a drop-off in how much their fellow team members liked them and sought their advice throughout the project, leading Ms Hu to speculate that warmth and assertiveness could be, at times, “too much of a good thing”.


“Being too warm and friendly can be overwhelming for others who feel pressured to respond in the same enthusiastic way,” she said.


While this study was done with informal leaders, Ms Hu said she believes the results could also apply to formally chosen supervisors, noting that even in teams with formal bosses, informal leaders like those in this study often emerge and play a key role in a team’s success.


The study appears online in the Journal of Applied Psychology and will be published in a future print edition.

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