The Ambivert Advantage

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I’ve just finished reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. If you consider yourself an introvert, as I did, the book will help you recognize and apply your strengths to be more successful in a predominately extraverted world. If you’re an extravert, it will give you a greater appreciation of your own blind spots and help you get the most from the introverts around you.

But a word that only appeared once in the entire book sparked my greatest interest: ambivert. I’ll explain why a little later in this article.

Today’s business and culture glorifies the extravert ideal. We watch reality shows in which the brashest, most outgoing and shameless people grab the limelight. We put charismatic business leaders on the covers of our magazines. In meetings, those who speak up the most are seen as smarter and better leaders, and they are the ones who tend to get the promotions.

Business today glorifies teamwork, which is tailor-made for extraverts. Open-plan offices are thought to encourage more interaction, teamwork, and creativity. (From the 1970s to the 1990s, the average space per office worker declined from 500 to 200 square feet.) Yet, research shows that open-plan offices impair productivity and increase stress. Group brainstorming has been found to produce fewer good ideas than people working alone. That’s because the extraverts tend to take over, and introverts clam up.

No less a business leader than Jack Welch said: “big companies are so tilted towards extroverts that introverts within them often experience a dynamic not unlike the one faced by many women and minorities. They have to constantly overdeliver just to stay even.”

Welch further went on to say that introverts in large organizations need to release their inner extravert; they have to get out more and “deploy all the energy and personality they can muster.”

It sounds like excellent advice, but is it necessary? Are extraverts automatically better leaders and better salespeople? In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins tells us that all the great companies he studied had quiet leaders in common. Peter Drucker said that, of all the most effective leaders he had ever met, all had little or no charisma. And, as I recently wrote here, pundits who are the most confident and bold in their predictions are the most likely to be heard and the most likely to be wrong.

More recent research shows it might be more complicated than that, indicating that what matters is the relationship between the styles of both followers and leaders. A recent study showed that better group performance resulted when extraverted leaders led passive employees, and when quiet leaders worked with outgoing and proactive followers. When both leaders and followers have similar styles, performance went down.

In today’s fast-changing world, leaders rightly want to empower employees to take initiative, but that means they then have to act more introverted by asking more questions, listening more, and being more accepting of others’ views. Otherwise, it can lead to a struggle for dominance with followers ultimately becoming disenchanted that their leaders were not listening to them and following their advice. This may be especially important for sales managers. If you’ve risen from an extravert pool to your current position, you may need to tone down your need to be the center of attention and to always be right.

Even in sales, a profession which seems to be tailor-made for extraverts, the picture is not so clear.

Extraverts have some definite advantages in sales. They are action-oriented, confident, and gregarious. They’re not afraid to make the calls and reach out to high level decision makers, and they have the energy and enthusiasm to entertain and develop strong relationships. They are great networkers. I have 115 friends on FB and that’s too much. My friend John has almost 3,000 and is eagerly seeking more. Extraverts love doing these things and introverts find them to be work, so there’s a strike against introverts.

And yet, especially in complex systems sales, success comes to those who research the customer’s company, who put together effective opportunity and account plans, who ask questions and listen. Introverts may not like to make cold calls, but they are more likely to create a calling plan and have the dogged discipline to follow it. As one highly successful salesperson says in the book: “I discovered early on that people don’t buy from me because they understand what I’m selling. They buy because they feel understood.

Because both types have advantages, it stands to reason that the most effective salespeople should combine the best traits of each, or who can flex their style to match the needs of the situation.

The key point in all this is that success in any profession is based on the effective performance of certain required behaviors and actions as the situation dictates, and these are products of will and skill. Practice and habit make things easier in the long run, so introverts can get better at doing the things they need to do, and extraverts can do the same. Personality is not destiny.

Labels can limit us. The first thing we should do is drop the labels we’ve imposed on ourselves. See, labels work both ways. If we behave as introverts, we—or others—place that label on us. Once we accept the label, it goes to work on us in the future. We react to situations the way we think introverts should react.

Labels can also empower us. If labels have that much power, why not change the label? The more I read the book, the less I identified with the pure introvert label. If you think of the distribution of personality types as a bell curve, most people will fall somewhere in the middle, so most of us are really ambiverts. This should be encouraging, because it means that you may not be as far from the center as you thought. From the center, it is much easier to move in either direction as the need arises. If you need to be assertive and outgoing, you can do so. Or, if you need to quiet down a bit and think a bit, you can also do it.

So, if you’re more introverted, take Welch’s advice and get out more; before meetings, think about what you’re going to say and plan to participate and speak out more. Seek out speaking opportunities; joining Toastmasters quite literally changed my life, because the confidence I gained in speaking in front of groups translated into many other business and social situations.

If you’re more extraverted, cut your talk/listen ratio way down. One CEO says that he purposely does not say anything for the first 15 minutes of any meeting. If you’re spouting opinions and nobody rebuts, don’t automatically assume it’s because they’re blown away by your brilliance. Maybe they just think you’re a jerk and want you to go away.

So, if you ask me which personality type is better, I’m firmly in the middle.

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