“Neither E=mc2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.”
— Winifried Gallagher ¹
In the current reality of a global pandemic, fassforward ran a wide-ranging study on remote learning. The goal: to understand how remote work would fundamentally change learning. As part of the study, we conducted qualitative interviews with over ninety business leaders, HR professionals, learning practitioners, and academics. One theme kept repeating — Work is learning and learning is work. As we emerge from the pandemic it is helpful to pause and take stock of what we have learned so far.
Personality types matter
Organizations across the globe are grappling with “return-to-office” decisions. Most are considering three options: a fully remote workforce; a hybrid model; or a full return to the office.
Personality types play a significant role in the perception of remote work. Whether you’re an introvert, extrovert, or an “ambivert” (somewhere in between), understanding your biases and strengths is key. Introverts seem to be pretty happy with remote work. It has meant more independence to work at their own pace, flexible formats for learning differences, and even relief from social stressors. Less social interaction has given introverts opportunities to recharge and focus on deep-thinking tasks. It provides them with agency and autonomy that’s difficult in office environments.
Extroverts however, may see it differently. They prefer more stimulating environments and are generally not comfortable with solitude. They may have a preference for a full return-to-office model.
One factor for organizations to remember as they formulate their post-pandemic plans is that employees are more engaged and committed when they can be their authentic selves. According to Harvard Business School behavioral scientist Francesca Gino, “by increasing awareness of where we stand in terms of introversion and extroversion, we can develop a better sense of our tendencies, manage our weak spots, and play to our strengths.”²
What are we learning about remote leadership?
The pandemic has been an opportunity to unfreeze old ways of thinking, working, and leading. Chief Learning Officers and Chief People Officers have been front and center during the crisis, a position similar to that of the CFO during the 2008 financial collapse. One of the lessons learned is that remote work requires a new type of leadership.
A study by Brigham Young University yields some interesting insights.³ It found new leaders emerging in virtual workspaces. The study, published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, looked at “emergent leaders” — workers with no formal authority but recognized as leaders by team members.
Researchers found that those who thrive face-to-face, weren’t necessarily the strongest in digital settings. In one interview, a senior HR executive in a large financial services firm expressed surprise over their top talent. Some of their high-potential leaders were not performing well in this remote work environment, while others who were not as highly thought of, performed magnificently.
Do you have overlooked leaders?
On many teams, there are always some who dominate the conversation — whether in-person or remote. Unless you have strong virtual facilitation, meetings can easily go off on tangents, chew up time, and drain employees’ motivation. In collaborative face-to-face settings, extroverts contribute enthusiasm and energy, keeping momentum going and balancing introverts’ more reflective nature.
Research confirms that introverts are less likely than extroverts to be groomed for leadership positions. Surprisingly, a Wharton study by Professor Adam Grant found that introverted leaders can outperform extroverted ones, especially when managing proactive employees.⁴ Proactive employees suggest improvements, contribute ideas and state opinions about work issues. These behaviors are especially important now.
Introverted leaders are more likely to listen carefully to suggestions and support employees’ efforts to be proactive. Extroverted leaders often have a blind spot here. They like to be the center of attention and are sometimes threatened by more proactive employees.
How outgoing are we?
According to a survey published in Industrial Psychiatry, approximately 50% of the population are introverts.⁵ Why then does research show that extroverts are disproportionately represented in organizations? At the top end of organizational hierarchies, 98% of company executives and 88% of supervisors are extroverts.
According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, this is not a surprise. “Extroverts are routinely chosen for leadership positions and introverts are looked over, even though introverts often deliver better outcomes,” Cain says. “They’re not perceived as leadership material.”
This is a dilemma of the modern workplace. In conversations around diversity, we speak of race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Rarely do we speak of the need for diversity of ideas and thought, which is what introverts — roughly half of the population, bring.
Diversity of thought, however, is only part of the problem. Think about the “modern workplace” we left behind. It catered to the extrovert: open, collaborative offices and an expectation of constant connection. These spaces rob the introvert of the quiet and solitude where they produce their best work.
At this critical time when organizations are debating return-to-office strategies, many introverts are anxious over this impending change.⁶ Not only are modern, open-office designs often overwhelming for introverts, but extroverts are primarily in charge of the re-entry plans. Introverts are worried that their preferred, newfound work styles will be dismissed.
We may be making a mistake to embrace the extrovert ideal. Many of our greatest ideas and inventions came from quiet, cerebral people who knew how to tune into their inner worlds. Without introverts, we would be deprived of some of mankind's finest works of literature, art, and science.
Why are introverts concerned about returning to office? One word — control. While remote work is not without its challenges, it gives employees freedom and autonomy to manage their work. Remote work and learning affords introverts the control they can miss in real life — a space between them and the world.
“In uncertain times like a pandemic, it’s important to increase feelings of control where and when we can,” says Rachel Hershenberg, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Emory University. She is the author of Activating Happiness: A Jump-Start Guide to Overcoming Low Motivation, Depression, or Just Feeling Stuck.
This need for control may partially explain the proliferation of productivity apps. According to Hershenberg, “while a spreadsheet, a to-do list or a mindfulness app are not going to solve the pandemic, they can help us feel more in control of our lives if we use them correctly. These apps foster some degree of controllability over our goals and plans.”
Before the pandemic, solitude seemed to be in short supply. Think about it — how much privacy or alone time did you have in 2019 compared to 2020? My bet is not much. Yet solitude is one of the most important requirements of leadership. This is a paradox. Solitude means being alone, while leadership implies the presence of others.
In American history, when we think about leadership, we might think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement. All with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction.
When we think of solitude, we might think of Thoreau, alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence. Newton discovered gravity while in isolation from the bubonic plague. Solitude lets you concentrate and focus, rather than be dispersed by a cloud of electronic and social input.
Thinking means developing your ideas and in short, to think for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by friend requests,tweets, or responding to emails and texts.
The twisted silver lining in this pandemic is that you have had more time to listen to that quiet inner voice that tells you what you believe in, and how those things might be evolving through this experience.
How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself? Yes, solitude matters to leaders. In fact it may be the essence of leadership. However many people you consult, you’re the one making the hard decisions. And at such moments, solitude is a gift to yourself.
As a leader, this is a gift you can give to others. Understanding, as a leader, how much facetime you need with others, versus alone time to do your work. This, and how you provide it with your team, is what we call balancing Touch and Task.
This isn’t Kansas anymore
The business world is clearly built for extroverts, and for a brief moment, the world turned. The implications for business leaders now, is to examine their own leadership and consider the diversity of personality in their hiring and in management ranks. Leaders can and must create space for employees to be their authentic selves.
Without a doubt extroverted leaders deliver real value for organizations. They are highly goal oriented. On tasks performed under time, social pressure, or multitasking, extroverts perform better than introverts.
At the same time, introverted leaders are more successful than extroverts in many areas. Introverts receive disproportionate numbers of graduate degrees, National Merit Scholarships, and Phi Beta Kappa keys.⁷ They outperform extroverts on the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal test, an assessment of critical thinking widely used by businesses for hiring and promotion.⁸ And there is a real need for solitude and leadership in this rapid-fire chaotic world.
This is not a free pass for introverts — we must still learn how to “turn it on.” Part of being an adult is dealing with the world as it is, not how we think it should be. “If you can’t beat 'em’, join ‘em’.” Tear yourself away from your work and make some friends. Have lunch with people more often. Speak up more. Smile more. And at the end of each day — you can click your heels and go back to Kansas.