Extroverts promise, but neurotics deliver as team players
Extroverts draw us in with their energy and enthusiasm, but they can disappoint when it comes to teamwork.
Your department is interviewing candidates for a team to launch an ambitious new project. Among them is Darren, an energetic, confident extrovert of a guy bursting with a "can-do" attitude. Then there’s Doug, who has the right experience but comes across as downright neurotic — anxious and obsessive — in an interview.
The choices seem obvious: Hire a team of go-getters like Darren, pass on Doug and others of his ilk, and the new project is a surefire success. Right?
Wrong. Because the bright, shiny bubble of extroversion can implode in a team effort, while the neurotic viewed as a loser may perform way beyond anyone’s expectations, according to new research by Corrine Bendersky
. An associate professor in the UCLA Anderson School of Management, Bendersky studies status — the respect and esteem in which one is held by peers in teams and organizations. She is particularly interested in how people’s status changes over time, for better or for worse.
"I was starting to see a pattern of some types of people who seem to systematically be losing status and other types of people who seem to be systematically gaining status," Bendersky said. "That led me to start exploring what kind of individual differences I could identify to help understand and predict this."
Business professor Corinne Bendersky explores how people gain status, and lose it, on the job.
Drawing from what psychologists call "the big five personality traits" — openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism — Bendersky and co-investigator Neha Parikh Shah, an assistant professor at Rutgers Business School, focused on two of those traits in research published last month. "The Downfall of Extroverts and the Rise of Neurotics: The Dynamic Process of Status Allocation in Task Groups"
appeared in the Academy of Management Journal.
Their research subjects were fledgling M.B.A. students at the Anderson School who, prior to their first quarter, were assigned to five-person study groups that would spend a significant amount of time together collaborating on class exercises and group assignments for their core courses. The researchers conducted personality assessments; the 299 students were asked if they agreed with statements such as "I like to have a lot of people around me" (an extrovert trait) and "I often feel tense and guilty" (a neurotic trait). Then, about a week into the quarter — enough time for students to have formed initial impressions about each other but before their projects geared up— they were asked to rate the status of each member of their small groups, themselves included, and predict how much of a contribution each of them would ultimately make to the group’s efforts.
The more of an extroverted personality someone had, Bendersky and Shah found, the higher that person’s status and the more their peers expected they would contribute to group efforts. Neurotics, on the other hand, were given low status and weren’t expected to contribute much.
But when the students were revisited at the end of the quarter, the picture was quite different. "After working together for 10 weeks on a variety of different projects, the extroverts were perceived by their peers to have contributed less than expected, and they lost status as a result," Bendersky said. "And the neurotics were perceived as having contributed more than expected and increased in status as a result."
Neurotic colleagues, brimming with anxiety, can play a surprisingly positive role in collaborative efforts.
What’s going on? For extroverts, some of the very qualities that make them shine can tarnish in the glaring light of teamwork. And for neurotics, traits that aren’t very exciting turn out to be quite effective on the job.
"The core of extroversion is wanting to be the center of attention," Bendersky said. "[Initially], there’s a very strong, intuitive assumption by others that the enthusiasm, outgoingness and assertiveness of extroverts is associated with being very strong, positive contributors to tasks at work. But extroverts like to talk more than to listen. They’re not particularly receptive to other people’s input. While they really excel at tasks where they get all the credit, in interactive, collaborative settings, their peers start out with high expectations for them and end up disappointed."
Neurotics, on the other hand, possess qualities that help them rise to the occasion.
"The neurotic personality is really [plagued by] an anxiety of not wanting to disappoint peers and colleagues," said Bendersky. "Because of that, neurotics are motivated to work really hard, especially in group contexts. And that really surprises us, because most of us look at these really anxious, withdrawn employees or prospective employees and think, ‘Well, they might be okay working by themselves, the back-office kind of person.’ But [in groups], they’re going to be really well-prepared and work hard. They can even be very generous and supportive and helpful."
Bendersky emphasized that the research didn’t find that extroverts plummet to the bottom of the pole, nor do neurotics take over at the top. Extroverts still contribute in teamwork — just not as much as we expect them to — and they come in handy for roles like the charismatic team member who does the on-stage presentations. Neurotics, meanwhile, can get the job done, but sometimes not without a lot of worrying and grumbling that can irritate everyone involved.
In terms of the study’s practical takeaway, "In no way does this suggest that we should not be staffing teams with extroverted people or only with neurotic people," Bendersky said. "This work suggests that more of a balance is appropriate. Extroverts tend to be much more risk-seeking, and neurotics tend to be much more cautious and risk-averse. So having a balance of those preferences may, overall, improve decision-making."
So what’s the ideal ratio of extroverts to neurotics?
"I might have to look at that in my next study," Bendersky joked.