I was immediately on high alert and queried what he meant by this. He explained that he was generally a quiet individual, a definite ‘introvert’ and as such, he felt that his career opportunities were seriously hindered by his personality.
Apart from his general lack of understanding about personality, I thought how sad that he could not see strengths in who he was and how developing these strengths, rather than suppressing them, would enable his true leadership qualities to come to the fore.
My real concern was that his attempt to become an extrovert would inevitably lead to a lack of authenticity and an inability to generate trust and confidence, key attributes of effective leadership.
I am not advocating nature over nurture and that personality is fixed through genetic inheritance, but I am suggesting that an important factor in being able to secure recognition for consistent achievement is consistent behaviour.
Consistent behaviour will be difficult to sustain if an individual is trying to act out a role that does not reflect their natural tendencies. Furthermore, genes are not the only thing responsible for the development of our personality because personality is a complex trait – a trait that is influenced by many different genetic and environmental factors.
The study of personality is also subject to several approaches which underpin how researchers make judgments about an individual’s personality.
Psychologists advocating an idiographic approach regard personality development as a process which is open to change. This notion is in sharp contrast with nomothetic approach and disregards the idea of nomothetic approach that personality is consistent across situations and stable over time.
The psychometric approach to the study of personality compares individuals in terms of traits or dimensions common to everyone. This is a nomothetic approach and two examples are Hans Eysenck’s type and Raymond Cattell’s 16PF trait theories. The “big 5” are considered as being extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to experience. From a nomothetic point of view these are considered to adequately describe the psychologically significant aspects of any personality.
By contrast, Gordon Allport found over 18,000 separate terms describing personal characteristics. Whilst some of these are common traits, the majority, in Allport’s view, referred to unique dispositions based on life experiences which are peculiar to ourselves. He argues that they cannot be effectively studied using standardised tests. What is needed is a way of investigating them idiographically. Two psychologists who have developed methods of doing this are George Kelly with his repertory grid technique and Carl Rogers. Consequently, as in the case of the participant in the leadership development programme, he wanted to behave ideographically and learn to change his behaviour to conform to his expectations of a nomothetic trait, extroversion – incidentally a common conundrum.
What I felt strongly was that he needed to be able to have a much greater understanding of who he was in terms of his strengths and weaknesses and how these could be developed to enable him to show his leadership potential.
Rather than craving for the ‘sexy’ characteristics of the extrovert, he needed to understand how the characteristics of the introvert, such as reflection, listening, being able to focus, and a lack of a need to be the centre of attention, could present a strong leadership profile that others could support and have confidence to follow. Whilst coaching would be a sensible personal development process, certainly the one-to-one focus of coaching presents a comfortable development technique for those more reserved and less inclined to push their ideas forward, coaching alone would only go so far.
The important aspect of development for introverts is learning how they can use others as reference points to help them in situations requiring them to be more out-going, enthusiastic, quietly charismatic and in-charge. This type of development needs activities that have introverts in the thick of team-building and net-working, in a ‘safe’ environment where they can practice developing their strengths and showing others what they can contribute.
In time, as their confidence develops, they may well show characteristics that are more associated with extroverts but actually they are still introverts. Being an introvert doesn’t mean that you are not sociable and avoid being with people, it means that you are aroused by things that are different to extroverts. What introverts need is to be respected for their introversion and not being made to feel that they should become an extrovert.