Managing introverts and overly cautious managers

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Rey Elbo

In The Workplace

Our department head, who holds the rank of director, is low-key and not sociable. Most of the time, he keeps himself busy inside his room and would prefer to manage us via e-mail, texting, and phone calls even if we’re only few meters away from his room. Sometimes, he takes too much time to make decisions because he wants everyone to contribute their ideas to certain issues, even if the ones consulted are not part of the equation. Could you please help us understand the situation? — Bit Puzzled.

Really, it depends so much on the circumstances. Let me tell you a story of a farmer who just saw a young soldier with what appeared like a parachute inside the farm. “You must be brave to come down in a 100-mile-per-hour windstorm in that parachute,” says the farmer to the soldier.

“I didn’t come down in a chute,” replies the soldier. “I went up and down safely with this tent!”

You may not know it, but there has been a growing awareness that introvert-managers have some valuable personal traits that contribute to them becoming good leaders because of their people-handling skills. Why is that so?

Adam Grant, Francesca Gino and David Hofman suggest in their article, “The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses” published in the December 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review that “extroverted leaders have important strengths. However, they also tend to command the center of attention and take over discussions. In a dynamic, unpredictable environment, introverts are often more effective leaders — particularly when workers are proactive, offering ideas for improving the business.

“Such behavior can make extroverted leaders feel threatened. In contrast, introverted leaders tend to listen more carefully and show greater receptivity to suggestions, making them more effective leaders of vocal teams.”

The coauthors have validated the findings by conducting “a lab experiment in which (they) asked 163 college students to work in groups to see how many T-shirts the (students) could fold in 10 minutes. Each group had a leader and four followers, two of whom were research assistants posing as followers.

“To manipulate the behavior of the leaders, (the authors) had each read a statement before the activity began: Some read a statement extolling extroverted leaders (like JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.); others read a statement praising reserved leaders (like Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln).

“We also predisposed some followers toward proactive behavior. For instance, some of the researcher-followers stopped their groups after 90 seconds and suggested a better way to do the task. The groups with proactive followers performed better under an introverted leader — folding, on average, 28% more T-shirts. The extroverted leaders appeared threatened by and unreceptive to proactive employees. The introverted leaders listened carefully and made employees feel valued, motivating them to work hard.”

There are many advantages for being an introvert-manager. According to Grant, Gino and Hoffman, they are “more cautious and deliberate,” with “greater ability to listen and take suggestions” and “more creative” like Steve Wozniak, the other half of Steve Jobs who established Apple. Their partnership complemented one another as Jobs was known as the extrovert, while Wozniak is known for his reclusive style, spending long hours working alone to create Apple’s first computer.

Now, that prescription is in an American context. Do we have evidence to prove that being introvert and all of its many advantages can be treated as universal that could be done also by people from other cultures?

With or without evidence, being an introvert has its own advantages in this part of the world but only if your boss can do the following:

One, switch from being withdrawn to outgoing from time-to-time. But not all the time. He can’t be an introvert all the time. As part of the management team, he needs to personally meet the customers and of course, the workers who can only be managed through an eyeball-to-eyeball setup. Your boss must have the capacity to be flexible as the need arises.

Two, explain the reason for such long hours inside his room. He must be upfront and clear on why he has to stay much longer inside his comfort zone and away from the madding crowd. At times, he can make the excuse that he’s more productive that way. But not if he wants to clarify certain issues, many of which cannot be reduced to writing.

Three, manage by walking around than sit all day long. One primary reason for this is health and wellness. Prolonged sitting can cause low back pain, limb pain and numbness. But more than that, there’s no better way to initiate a proactive communication process with the workers by having a regular visits to their work stations, not to “snoopervise,” but to show them that you’re always visible and available for consultation.

Every manager, regardless of rank, has his or her share of wrongful employee perceptions, some of which may be difficult to correct. That’s why it is always a requirement for anyone with a fabulous title to see the big picture and be able to assess what can be done at the soonest possible time.

ELBONOMICS: Think slowly and be successful. Think fast and be last.