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Rise of Neurotics

Outgoing's out

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A study shows that the withdrawn neurotic performs better than the gregarious go-getter.

The confident, outgoing and bold person is bound to deliver results while the anxious, withdrawn and hesitant one will surely mess up. That's popular wisdom. It guides hiring, allocation of tasks and even social interaction and preferences.

But these stereotypes may be wrong. In research that has upended this conventional notion, Neha Parikh Shah, an assistant professor at the Rutgers Business School, and Corinne Bendersky, an associate professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, has shown that in the long term, the neurotic type will probably perform better, earn more respect from his/her team members and thus be better for business than the brash go-getter. Their paper 'The Downfall of Extroverts and Rise of Neurotics: The Dynamic Process of Status Allocation in Task Groups' was published recently in a management journal in US and became quite a talking point.

Neha Parikh Shah, 33 and a second generation NRI, had done a previous study in which it was found that MBA students seem to trade off their efforts to attain higher status in their work teams with their individual performance. This led to a curiosity about finding out about who gains status over time and who loses it. Since extroversion and neuroticism have long been associated with high and low status, respectively, it seemed like a natural place to focus. Excerpts from an interview. .

How do you define 'extrovert' and 'neurotic' ?

Extroverts are people who are confident, outgoing, and enthusiastic. Neurotics are people who are withdrawn and anxious.

What exactly did your study find?

Previously, research has shown that members of work teams tend to give high status to extroverted teammates, since they convey confidence, enthusiasm and dominance. On the other hand, they give low status to neurotic individuals, since these people express anxiety, withdrawal and emotional volatility.

In our studies, when we look at work teams over time, we see that extroverts actually lose status in the eyes of their team members, while neurotic individuals gain in status. This happens because the extroverts disappointed and the neurotics exceeded their teammates' expectations. When we look closer at behaviours, we see that people view extroverts' contributions as less generous, while they view neurotics' contributions as more generous, even for the same level of contribution.

Overall, the implication here is that managers may place too much value in extroverts and undervalue neurotic individuals. Managers may have problems if they rely too much on extroverted people, whose esteems falls in the eyes of their teammates as the team works together. On the same note, they may not value neurotics enough, though these people rise in their teams' esteem over time.

Are extroverts and neurotic people mutually exclusive - can't there be extroverts who are anxious?

The personalities are not mutually exclusive, and so, it is possible that there are extroverts who are anxious. We didn't find any effects of this overlap however.

Don't people pretend or act as if they are outgoing even if they were actually really shy? How would that affect the study?

Given that the teams in our first study - 229 MBA students, average age of 29 years - worked together for 10 weeks, any notion of pretending seems unlikely. And in our second study with 304 adults, we administered a personality test, so there was no acting.

Does the study show that extroverts fall in the estimation of their team or does it show that actually extroverts contribute less than neurotics?

Well, we show that the extroverts fall in the estimation of their teams and that this effect is not due to higher initial contribution expectations that were unfulfilled, but rather to harsher evaluations of their contributions. Overall, extroverts likely do contribute less than neurotics do, since neurotics are more concerned with their anxiety about being low status in the group and will work harder to increase their status.

Why is our society placing such a premium on the outgoing, presentable, 'salesperson' type of person at the cost of quiet and reflective people?

Let me first clarify: don't equate anxiety with being quiet and reflective. The former would be considered high on neuroticism, while the latter would be considered high on introversion.

Naturally we are drawn to outgoing people, they are talkative, assertive, interested in attracting our attention, and so we opt to favour them. The quieter, more introverted people are not clamouring for our attention and so we may overlook them.

Final word: what's your ideal team?

One that includes a balance of extroverts and neurotics. They each have their value!

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