How to leverage unique strengths.
Some years ago, my manager, who was the Chief Technology Officer at a global professional business services company challenged an “exceptional rating” that I gave to one of my project managers who happened to be an introvert. An exceptional rating was rare in the firm, awarded to less than 10% of employees. This particular employee did not fit the profile of a typical project manager, at least in my manager’s mind. My manager believed project managers should be assertive, outwardly sociable, confident, and outspoken, and Charles (name changed) did not fit that image. Conversely, he was reserved, introspective, and methodical. As the head of the project management office, I worked with Charles routinely, and to me, Charles was an excellent project manager because he delivered and kept our key stakeholders happy. My boss and I had a long debate, and even though I “won” tactically, it left a bitter impression afterward. After all, as the cliché goes, one should not judge a book by its cover, and one should certainly not judge another professional’s effectiveness because of an introverted personality.
In our society, at least in the West, we have an infatuation with extroverts. Most leaders are thought to be extroverts, and project managers are the leaders of their respective teams. A quick Internet search finds statistics such as “96% of business leaders identify as being extroverted.” At first glance, this appears to make sense. After all, sociable people are more likely to be noticed and thought to be more charismatic, more likable, and more intelligent as they express their thoughts and ideas more readily and exuberantly. As a result, they are more likely to be chosen as leaders over their more reserved peers. Yet, most of these beliefs about extroverts are either exaggerated or simply false. Studies focused on executives show that characteristics associated with extroverts such as charisma have no relationship to actual performance (Agle, Nagarajan, Sonnenfeld and Srinivasan, 2006; Tosi, Misangyi, Fanelli, Waldman, and Yammarino 2004). Depending on context, another study showed that introverts and extroverts were equally effective as leaders in both business and academic environments (Atamanik, 2013).
The bias in favor of extroverts is unfortunate because in our current post-pandemic world in which hybrid-work models, advanced communication technologies, artificial intelligence, global crisis, and society disorders, the world needs more thoughtful leaders with introverted characteristics who are quick to listen and learn, slower to speak and more measured and thoughtful in their responses. Given the complexities of modern businesses with intertwining societal, technological, political, and environmental issues, it may very well be more important to think before speaking, and act methodically with robust planning and organizing before diving into unnecessary changes. The ability to lead through thoughtful actions and not just charisma or pumped-up emotions is paramount.
Introverts can be great project leaders with their ability to leverage their unique strengths. Here are the top five strategies that highlight how introverts can excel as project managers:
Decision Making: On projects, especially large and complex projects, project managers are constantly making, both, large and small decisions. A small decision can be a tradeoff between spending more time on quality versus speeding up the implementation. In complex situations, such as working on transformational projects, introverts are more reflective and thoughtful. They like to gather data, hear contrasting opinions, weigh various factors, and consider options deeply before making decisions. All these can lead to more informed, and likely, more favorable outcomes.
Active Listening: Introverts are good listeners, and instead of trying to frame the next response, which extroverts have a higher tendency to do, introverts can truly listen to project stakeholders and understand their ideas and concerns. Over time, introverts are likely to be more approachable, more relatable, and more collaborative, creating an inclusive project team environment.
Empowerment: Even though most introverts do not hide from spotlights when the occasion calls for it, they also do not seek attention as much as extroverts. For team members working with and for introverts, this is an important form of empowerment in which they are more likely to express their opinions, impart their expertise, and share the spotlight with their co-project managers and project team. When organizing sessions to share project successes, introverted project managers are more likely to include the contributors and give them the platform to shine. This can create a more motivated, dynamic, and cohesive team.
Adaptability: In our era of rapidly advancing technologies and processes, introverts are likely to be more adaptable to changing technologies and circumstances. Because introverted leaders are less outwardly expressive, in periods of uncertainty and rapid changes, the preference to be thoughtful, work collaboratively behind the scenes, and explore new tools and options gives them more flexibility in choices than prematurely committing to certain solutions. Introverts can better adapt their approach to suit the project team’s needs and better address unique project circumstances.
Lead by Example: Finally, introverts often lead by example, demonstrating value through hard work, integrity, dedication, and attention to detail. Over time, introverted leaders are likely to be viewed as more dependable. After all, by saying less and doing more, introverted project leaders earn their team’s trust. In addition, setting the tone at the top can inspire their project teams to uphold high standards of performance and ethics.
Written by: Te Wu, DPS, associate professor at Montclair State University, for Psychology Today.