Why introverts struggle to climb the corporate ladder

Introverts can bring diversity of thought to organizations, but they're under-represented in the ranks of many business leadership.
By: | February 5, 2020

When seeking more diversity of thought among organizational leaders and employees, it might be a good idea to look inward.

That’s because, while 56.8% of global and U.S. workers consider themselves introverts, only 39% of senior leaders in the U.S. do, according to data collected by the Myers-Briggs Co.

John Hackston, head of thought leadership at Myers-Briggs in London, says that organizations could benefit from promoting more introverts, whose talents and ideas often get ignored.

As defined by the nearly 60-year-old Jungian psychology-based Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, introversion means “an orientation toward their internal world,” which means such people silently think through ideas before speaking up, while “people with extroversion tend to talk their thoughts out, say more things and, generally speaking, seem to be more confident,” Hackston says.

That doesn’t mean that introverts aren’t as confident about their ideas—it’s just that their more thoughtful approach can be overlooked when cultural stereotypes of leadership skew toward extroverted behavior. Also, an introversion preference isn’t always across the board: People may be introverted and quieter in settings such as group meetings but behave more extroverted in one-on-one conversations with colleagues.

It’s worth noting that some cultures seem to have a more even split between introverted and extroverted leaders. Countries with the highest levels of introverted top executives and senior managers are Singapore and Zambia (53% each), Malaysia (51%) and Russia (48%). The lowest proportion of introverted leaders can be found in Finland (23%), Turkey (28%), Peru (29%) and Sweden (30%).

Despite the predominance of introversion worldwide—which clocks in at 58.6%—the question remains, why are introverted leaders in the minority?

“We know that—in Western society, in particular, but in many organizations around the world—people look for and expect [extroversion in] that leadership role,” Hackston says.

As a result, many introverted people will adopt a strategy of acting more extroverted to advance their careers, since cultural stereotypes and unconscious bias against introversion can have a negative impact, he notes.

The good news is that introverted leaders and employees can expand the diversity of perspectives available to an organization, including how to better communicate with and involve employees who prefer introversion. A few simple strategies include:

  • Sending out detailed meeting agendas with clear expectations ahead of time to give introverts time to prepare.
  • Allowing for breaks in discussions to give introverted team members a time to chime in.
  • Utilizing a range of communication formats, including presentations, meetings and written communications.

“I think part of the advantage is that, statistically, [introverts] may be coming from a slightly different place to many other leaders in their organization. Having that diversity of thought at senior levels is useful,” Hackston says. “I think we could all learn to appreciate people who are different to us and to see where they’re coming from.”

Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.