Why ambiverts are better leaders

Blending both extrovert and introvert personality types can make you indispensable in the office – and finding that balance is a skill we can all master.

It’s like asking someone if they’re a cat person or a dog person – so basic, almost tribal: are you an extrovert or an introvert?

Each of these identities has its own strengths and weaknesses, yet it seems there’s constant debate about which it is better to be. Some say the internet has a “love affair” with introverts, and that being an introvert is, at long last, cool, particularly during the pandemic. That’s likely a reaction to a culture that has long seemed to celebrate and reward extroverts, especially in many Western countries and particularly in the workforce, where they’re able to use their natural people skills. Complicating things further, some research has shown that introverts can outshine extroverts as leaders, despite the fact that the confident demeanour of an extrovert fits many people’s image of a typical CEO.

So, which is it? Who has more of an edge, and who’s more successful at work: bubbly, outgoing workers; or reserved, restrained ones? The answer, it turns out, is those who can be both: the chameleon-like ambivert.

Blending the best of both personality types can make you indispensable in the office, experts say. And although acting like both extrovert and introvert might feel tricky at times, it’s a skill we can all master, with a little practice.

The ‘ambivert advantage’

Adam Grant, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term ‘the ambivert advantage’ in a 2013 study that challenged notions of extroverts being more successful and productive in a sales environment. After studying 340 call-centre employees, Grant found that the workers who made the most sales revenue were those who fell in the middle of the extroversion scale. In fact, the results made a bell curve: the worst performers were the workers who were either extremely introverted, or extremely extroverted.

“Because they naturally engage in a flexible pattern of talking and listening, ambiverts are likely to express sufficient assertiveness and enthusiasm to persuade and close a sale,” Grant writes in the study. But ambiverts are also “more inclined to listen to customers’ interests and less vulnerable to appearing too excited or overconfident”.

Karl Moore, an associate professor of management at McGill University and associate fellow at Oxford University, who has studied ambiverts for years, estimates that 40% of top business leaders are extroverts, 40% are introverts and 20% are “true ambiverts”, based on interviews with 350 C-suite executives. But he believes that the unprecedented circumstances created by the pandemic have forced leaders of all stripes to try and act more like ambiverts.

In his upcoming book, We Are All Ambiverts Now, Moore says that the situation we were all thrust into required more leaders to call upon the strengths of both extroversion and introversion. For example, bosses needed to listen and take feedback in order to provide flexible and empathetic work environments for staff, but they also needed to broadcast clear and demonstrative enthusiasm to rally and guide the team into the unknown.

“What [the pandemic] means is that the CEO needs to listen a lot – a great leader is a great listener,” says Moore. “But [they] also need to be able to give the inspiring ‘guys, I am confident we can make it through this crisis’.”

‘Adapt to what’s necessary’

So, whether it’s sales figures or muddling through a once-in-a-century catastrophe, it’s good to be an ambivert. But how do you become one?Actually, say the experts, it’s very doable. Most of the popular personality tests will place you on a sliding scale of extroversion anyway, so ambiversion is likely within your grasp.

“It’s more about adaptive leadership style” than about thinking you need to re-haul your entire personality, says Alisa Cohn, a start-up and CEO coach based in New York City. “I think it’s less about working on your [perceived] weaknesses than it is about building up your ability to push yourself outside your comfort zone.”

It’s not just CEOs who benefit from ambiversion either, she says. In fact, the earlier in your career you build these skills, the better, since “the benefits will improve over time”. For people who identify as extroverts, this may mean being consciously quieter in meetings; for introverts, it may mean contributing more in meetings.

“It might be a specific behaviour: to listen longer or to ask another question and listen to the answer. To be more extroverted, it might be to initiate conversation or make small talk,” says Cohn. “I like the idea of practising the behaviour three, four, five times a day in little micro doses so you can do that a lot more easily without getting exhausted. And then score yourself.” Keep track of how often you do these things each day, and if you met your goal.

She also recommends spotting a role model you admire in your office who has the introvert or extrovert qualities you’re looking to emulate, so you can watch their behaviour and model yours on them.

Moore talks about working with an introverted CEO, Claude Mongeau, the former chief executive of Canadian National Railway, for his research. He says Mongeau worked with a leadership coach who gave him a clicker – like the one a bouncer outside a nightclub uses to count patrons – to keep track of every extroverted skill he practised each day. These were small things, like saying hello to someone or commenting on the weather. Moore says he was still very much an introvert, but realised to be an effective CEO, he had to channel his extroverted side.

Moore, an extrovert himself, says that channelling his inner ambivert has helped him in his own career, both as a researcher and for his radio show, in which he interviews CEOs. “On my radio show, 98% of the time I’m quiet, because I’m asking [the guest] a question, ‘Where are you from, what does your family do?’.”

Being an ambivert means being aware of your own natural social style, and knowing when the situation may call for just the opposite: “The most successful leaders are the ones who can recognise a situation and adapt their style as necessary,” says Cohn.

Avoiding the mental toll

The only downside is that this adaptation can wear you down. “You need to act like both. The problem is, it’s exhausting,” says Moore.

But remember, being an extrovert or an introvert comes down to how you are energised – either from the outside world or your internal one. So, when you try to go against natural preferences, it uses more “mental calories”, says Cohn, and it’s important to refill that mental energy tank.

For introverts, that might mean a solitary afternoon at home with a book or if you’re at work, a 15-minute break outside alone on a bench. For extroverts, it might mean surrounding yourself with people. Moore says his preferred ‘extrovert break’ when he’s on business is to find a restaurant and sit at the bar for dinner, so he can talk to other patrons. “It stimulates me. It gets my dopamine levels going, because I’m with people.”

It’s important to reiterate that few people are 100% one or the other. But becoming an ambivert is something more active; it’s deciding which switch to flip, and when. Sharpening that skill could mean all the difference – not just for you, but for the people you work with, too.

Cohn says one of her clients, an introverted manager, worked hard to strengthen his extroverted side by talking more in meetings, and responding more enthusiastically with confirming gestures like nodding. The result? His team “felt like there was more harmony in the meeting”, says Cohn. “It made them feel more important and empowered.”

“It wasn’t about him,” she says. “It was about other people feeling heard, feeling met.”