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Can a leader be too extroverted?

Extroverts are often seen as natural leaders in organizations. But a new study suggests that some leaders may have too much of a good thing.

The researchers found that informal leaders were better liked and more sought after for advice when they hit a middle “sweet spot” on levels of assertiveness and warmth, two facets of extroversion.

Team members reacted less favorably to leaders who were high on assertiveness or warmth.

What the researchers say: “Overly extroverted leaders can come across as too pushy or too annoying,” said the lead author of the study. “A moderate amount of assertiveness and warmth may be optimal.”

The study did find one factor that helped highly extroverted leaders receive better marks from their peers: prosocial motivation, or the desire to look out for others’ welfare.

The study appears online in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The researchers did two related studies. The first involved 260 undergraduate business students who were randomly assigned to 78 self-managed teams. The students worked in their teams on a variety of projects through a full semester.

At the beginning of the semester, students rated themselves on two facets of extroversion. One was assertiveness, which is the desire to be dominant and forceful. The second was warmth, which is how friendly and outgoing they were.

The students’ prosocial motivation was measured by asking them how much they agreed with statements like, “I care about benefiting others through my work”.

Later in the semester, students rated each member of their team on how much they showed leadership in their group activities. Based on these ratings, the researchers chose the person on each team who was seen by most of their peers as the leader.

Team members also rated how much they liked each of their team members and how much they went to him or her for advice in solving problems related to their tasks.

A second, nearly identical study involved 337 employees on work teams in a large retail company. Like with the students, these were self-managed teams without formal leaders.

Both studies had very similar results.

Leaders who were extroverted tended to be better liked and more sought after for advice by their team members – but only up to a point.

Leaders who rated themselves as very assertive or very warm tended to see a drop-off in how much their fellow team members liked them and sought their advice.

The lead author said it was a case of too much of a good thing. “If you’re too assertive as a team member, people think you’re pushy and they don’t like that,” she said.

“And if you’re too warm and friendly, that can be overwhelming for others who feel pressured to respond in the same enthusiastic way.”

But fellow employees can put up with more extroversion if they think you’re doing it for others.

“If you’re prosocially motivated, people see more benefits to your assertiveness and warmth. They know you’re not doing it just to promote yourself but have a genuine interest in the whole team. That means a lot,” she added.

While this study was done with informal leaders, the researchers believe the results could also apply to formally chosen supervisors. And they noted that even in teams with formal bosses, informal leaders like those in this study often emerge and play a key role in a team’s success.

So, what?

The study proves, yet again, two essential things: the best form of leadership is what is called transformational leadership. The ideal transformational leader is this ideal mixture of these elements of extroversion and prosocial tendencies.

The other thing that the study shows is that humans tend to gravitate towards managers who are “wise”, i.e. those that they look to for advice. This is the role that members of a hunter-gatherer council of elders played. The need for prosocial leaders, wise men or women for advice as well as people able to take charge and provide leadership in times of crisis are all part of our design-specs.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain