From a wealth of real-world examples such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to a ton of science and expert opinion, there's no shortage of evidence that introverts can make great leaders.

But, of course, quieter types can only demonstrate this fact if they decide to step up to the plate and lead. And according to new research, many introverts may be shying away from leadership positions in which they'd actually excel, because of misplaced fears about their potential and capabilities.

Group tasks aren't as horrible as you think they'll be. Really

Are you one of these reluctant introverts? Ask yourself this question: How would you feel about participating in a group task developed by NASA that involves making collective decisions about how to survive a mission to the moon? If you shudder at the thought of hashing over who drives the rover and how to conserve rocket fuel with near strangers, then you just might be a classic introvert. You also might be missing out on opportunities for advancement you're more than qualified for.

That's what a team of researchers found when they rounded up 184 business school students for a new study recently published in Personality and Individual Differences and highlighted on the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog. The team first rated the volunteers' level of introversion and then asked them to predict how the NASA task would make them feel. Next they observed their actual behavior during the activity.

What they found is pretty much what you'd expect. Those who dreaded the group activity subsequently took on less of a leadership role, and those who dreaded the task the most tended to be introverts. But interestingly, those introverts who didn't expect the worst from the experience actually led as much as more extroverted participants. The best predictor of lack of leadership wasn't introversion, it was low expectations.

According to the researchers, this suggests (though doesn't definitively prove) that introverts are holding themselves back with their dire forecasts of how much they'll dislike leading others.

"What introverts think they will feel in a leadership position plays a powerful role in explaining why introverts struggle to emerge as leaders," the study's authors Peter O'Connor and Andrew Spark explain on the Conversation. ​"When participants thought they would experience negative emotions (i.e., fear, worry, or distress), these became strong psychological barriers to acting like a leader."

Your personality isn't fixed

The good news here is that this means it should be possible to raise introverts' leadership potential by pointing their warped expectations out to them. According to other research, personality is more malleable than many people believe, and that, when passionately inspired by a goal, introverts can become outgoing (or extroverts quietly attuned to others). All quieter types need is a little push to believe in their own abilities so that they approach new, personality-shifting experiences with an open mind. This study could help accomplish just that.

"If introverts can be taught to be more confident or optimistic with respect to leadership situations, it seems very likely they can emerge as leaders as often as extroverts," conclude O'Connor and Spark.

So come on, introverts. Don't assume the worst about that new leadership opportunity. Science suggests that if you think just a little more positively, you'll do a whole lot better at the helm than you expect.

Published on: Oct 16, 2017
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