Project Management

Are Introverts More Suited For Virtual Leadership?

From the The Project Shrink Blog
Bas de Baar is a Dutch visual facilitator, creating visual tools for dialogue. He is dedicated to improve the dialogue we use to make sense of change. As The Project Shrink, this is the riddle he tries to solve: “If you are a Project Manager that operates for a short period of time in a foreign organization, with a global team you don’t know, in a domain you would not know, using virtual communication, high uncertainty, limited authority and part of what you do out in the open on the Internet, how do you make it all work?”

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Seriously.  Think about it.

Extroverts are strong in verbal communication, expressive in body language, great in invading your private space, really loud and stuff like that. Stuff that is cool for face-to-face communication. Introverts tend to be more reflective, silent, chilled out and living with cats in remote places. The things that make you awesome online. (yeah, yeah, I am overly strereotyping here.)

In "Why Introverts Can Make The Best Leaders" Jennifer Kahnweiler provides us with a couple of clues why this could be.

"They let the fingers do the talk." It seems that introverted people prefer writing over talking. I think it's the asynchronous communication that enables them to reflect, make up their mind on what they really think and spent time expressing this correctly. Uhm. Hello? "Online communication" anyone?

"They embrace solitude." Introverts are not some kind of hermits that try to avoid any human contact. But. They need some time alone. Getting away from outside interruptions. It provides the energy and silence that fuels the creativity and absorption of information.

This post also mentions that "it has been reported that a full 40% of executives describe themselves as introverts."

So. There should be a lot of introverts among the Project Management community.

Do you know any?

I think you recognize them because they are getting good at reading "digital" cues. They are masters of asynchronous communication.

I think you recognize them because they see projects as shelters from external disturbances. An oasis of focus. And stuff like that.

Not all managers would pay attention to providing their team and themselves with supportive structures that shield them from stress from the organizational environment. You know. Exercises like "The Tent". An exercise in creating and maintaining your comfort zone.

But at least introverted leaders would.

Although. They might be hard to spot. Some "extroverts" are perhaps "introverts in disguise".

The first female U.S. Army general to lead troops in combat is an introvert:

"Here’s General Brown: “I’m an introvert by nature. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re not…You don’t come across as being an introvert at all.’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s because every day I put on my Wonder Woman outfit, and you have to be able to do everything and anything. And so that’s the person you portray when you’re in uniform.”"

You wouldn't know. Although. The creative mental image of assuming the role of a superhero is a dead give away. I think you can recognize introverts in how they describe their own mental processes in situations. Like being on a Big Adventure. Setting up a tent. And of course the extensive use of maps. Maps!
But, of course, to lead a team, you have to challenge your comfort zone. "Introverts must be willing to tap into their extraversion when it’s time to “rally the troops” and inspire their teams," writes Lisa Petrilli in her very informative article "The Introvert's Guide To Leadership."

Sure enough, virtual leadership will not be exclusively for introverted people. Extrovert-Introvert is one of just many, many, many dimensions of a person.

For virtual leadership, we need transformational leaders. I quoted this post by Surinder Kahai before:

 “Since virtual teams are supported by technology and technology tends to filter out vital nonverbal cues, can a leader be effective in virtual contexts? (...)  (Researchers) “found that the effect of transformational leadership on team performance was stronger in virtual than in face-to-face teams. (...) Transformational leaders motivate others by engaging their intrinsic interests (e.g., being associated with a particular cause) as opposed to engaging their extrinsic interests (e.g., salary or pay).”

But still.


Bas de Baar is a writer who draws about people in transition. He loves to make visual maps and travel guides for the collaborators of our brave new world.

Posted on: June 29, 2011 06:02 AM | Permalink

Comments (11)

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I think introverts make better leaders period, whether virtual or not. But the kind of introvert I am referring to here is the highly intellectual kind that takes time to think through what he/she is going to say before communicating, takes time to listen carefully to what their team members say when they raise issues and use communication protocol based on the situation at hand: IM for quick questions, email for more detail or to document the communication and face to face when the situation warrants. I''ve found highly extroverted leaders who tend to communicate needlessly just because they could not be alone and others who are highly reactive and knee-jerk the communications with little thought.

On the other hand, if your the typical introvert that tends to avoid people because you are shy, then this kind of person is probably better for virtual management. But then if your shy, your probably not suited to lead people whether virtual or not. Of course, I''m responding to your post so I''m over generalizing, but this is how I view it in a nutshell.

I have a really hard time with putting labels on people and then trying to predict their effectiveness based on those labels. I know many, many people swear by Myers-Briggs and find great value in such evaluations when it comes to understanding the people whom they work for or with, but it seems dangerous to me to make too many assumptions based on personality labels. The truth is, introverted types can be thoughtful and cautious, or they can be timid and passive. Likewise, extroverted types may be loud and impulsive, or dynamic and motivating. I can see the usefulness in comparing leadership effectiveness of introverts in a virtual vs. an actual environment, but the comparison of introverts to extroverts in a virtual environment seems more likely to breed resentment and contention than anything useful.

Hey Erin, thanks for the great and inspiring comment. I do agree with you. More than I can write in a comment :) So it triggered a new blog post :

Basically, I see labeling as a hardwired human mechanism. That's how our brains work. The use of boxes, dimensions, balances are effective vehicles for explaining a more complex story. The problem arises when discussions get polarized and boxes are considered as "absolute" truth.

Hope this makes some sense.

Hi, Bas.

I also agree (love fest!) that labels are a great shorthand and pretty much necessary to understand each other to some degree. We all have experience that helps us expect how people with certain characteristics are likely to behave or respond to our own behavior. As a tool among many, these labels are definitely valuable...I'm heading off to read your latest...

See you there!

I agree with Surinder Kahai that virtual leadership requires a transformational leadership style. Certainly a person's psychological tendency is a predictor of a personality preference that would make an Introvert a successful virtual leader but it depends.

It depends on the situation, experience of the leader, his/her leadership style, global experience, training, culture, coaching and mentoring etc...

I agree with Erin that tools like labels are helpful to a degree...

@Erin: everybody in agreement :) Guess my Myers-Briggs type :D

@Naomi: true. it's the difficulty with providing information without too much context ... it all depends. :)

Good article, thanks for sharing

Good article thanks for sharing

A research by Adam Grant, a management professor at Wharton, "Introverted leaders sometimes deliver better outcomes than extroverts do. Introverts are more likely to let talented employees run with their ideas, rather than trying to put their own stamp on things,”

Introverts have great listening skills, great attention to detail, and a desire to look more deeply at issues for greater understanding.

It's not about virtual or otherwise, introverts can be great leaders in any situation.

Dear Bas
Interesting reflection
Thanks for sharing

Can people influence others (for example by harnessing their enormous potential) only through asynchronous communication?
I am convinced so.
I will say: It's not new!
How many writers have changed the lives of many people (although there is no contact with the authors)?

Interesting take on introvert (virtual) leadership. Thank you for sharing.

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