Stop Assuming Introverts Aren’t Passionate About Work
Picture this: You ask two of your direct reports to take on important projects for your team, expecting both to be passionate about the opportunity. In response, one gets visibly excited, becoming animated as you discuss their ideas, and you notice them chatting with their coworkers about it over lunch. The other reacts with less enthusiasm, remains calmer, and seems to keep to themselves. Who would you conclude was more passionate about their assignment?
If you guessed the first employee, you wouldn’t be alone. It’s common to assume that people’s outward behaviors correspond to their internal experiences — and yet, our recent research suggests that this isn’t necessarily the case.
To the contrary, we found that regardless of their actual level of passion, extroverted employees (that is, employees who tend to be more energized by social interactions) are perceived as more passionate than introverts (that is, those who are more energized by solitude). Moreover, this can drive substantial inequities in the workplace, as studies have shown that employees who are perceived as more passionate are rewarded by their managers, seen as higher-status and higher-potential, and are more likely to receive financial resources and other forms of support.
So, what drives these (often flawed) perceptions of employee passion? And what can managers and employees do to ensure that true passion — not just extroverted behaviors — are recognized and valued?
Understanding Perceptions of Passion
To explore these questions, we conducted a series of studies with more than 1,800 U.S-based working adults. In our first study, we tasked 165 pairs of employees and supervisors with evaluating each other’s levels of passion and self-reporting their own feelings of passion. We also used a standardized personality assessment to assess how extroverted or introverted participants were. And consistently, we found that supervisors rated more extroverted employees as more passionate than more introverted employees, regardless of how passionate employees actually felt.
This was in part because the more extroverted employees engaged in more behaviors that are commonly associated with passion, such as animated body language, talkativeness, and dynamic tones of voice. This is consistent with prior research, which has shown that extroverts tend to express their inner emotional states in a more outwardly observable manner. For example, when an extrovert feels joy, they’re more likely to laugh out loud, while an introvert is more likely to express the same emotion with a quiet smile. And just as our prototypical image of a joyful person may correspond more to the extroverted than introverted form of expression, so too does our default image of a passionate person seem to correspond to extroverted expressions of passion.
For example, if you think of a passionate person, you might envision Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s couch over his love of Katie Holmes, Winston Churchill’s powerful and booming oratory, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “fiery” and “scorching” speeches on the House floor. While the experience of passion — the fire in the belly — by definition rests within individuals, our research shows that employees’ levels of extroversion shapes how they express this passion, and thus how they’re perceived by others.
In addition, we found that supervisors’ perceptions of employee passion came with real, tangible consequences: Supervisors rewarded extroverts’ more-animated expressions of passion with higher estimations of their status, which has been shown to be associated with preferential treatment, greater chances of promotions and raises, and other benefits.
Of course, introverts are equally capable of experiencing passion as extroverts — they just express it differently. In our next set of studies, we asked more than 1,300 full-time employees how they typically expressed their passion to others, and they reported a wide range of behaviors. While some shared typically extroverted forms of expression, such as speaking louder or socializing more, many described much less outwardly observable behaviors, such as investing more in the quality of their work, spending more time on their work, and being more immersed in and focused on their work. For example, one employee described how “my passion came through in my behavior with my wild speech, crazy hand motions, and laughter!” while another shared that in a particularly passionate moment, “I wasn’t talking or joking with [my coworkers] about other things, I was focused on the task at hand.”
Indeed, while the first people who come to mind when we imagine expressions of passion may be the likes of Cruise and Churchill, examples abound of less-animated (yet equally impactful) expressions of passion. Rosa Parks, for example, is often portrayed as timid and shy, but she brought the “courage of a lion” to her activism. Or Stephen Curry, whose “quiet fire” fuels his success; Steven Spielberg, who engaged in his passion in solitude, noting, “rather than make friends…I would just go home and write my scripts and cut my films”; and Warren Buffet, who’s well known to be introverted. All of these people exemplify a quieter kind of passion.
Given the prevalence of passionate introverts in the public consciousness (not to mention the wealth of research showing that more-passionate employees work longer and harder and care more about the quality of their work, regardless of whether they express their passion in a stereotypically introverted or extroverted manner), why do so many of us continue to assume that extroverted behaviors are the only indicator of passion?
Our final study shed some light on this. We asked another 200 full-time employees from a wide range of industries to share how they expressed their passion every day for 10 days, and we found that not only did extroverts express their passion through more visible behaviors, they also expressed it more frequently and through a more diverse set of different behaviors. In other words, extroverts were better able to bridge the gap between experiencing passion in themselves and effectively expressing it to others, thus making their passionate behaviors more noticeable (and more likely to be rewarded) than those of equally passionate introverts.
Managing Passionate Introverts
In light of these findings, it’s understandable that managers may mistakenly interpret extroversion as passion, as extroverted expressions of passion tend to be a lot more obvious than introverted ones. And yet, it’s vital for managers to take proactive steps to address this bias and prevent it from harming their more introverted employees. Specifically, there are a few tactical steps managers should take:
1. Learn how your employees express passion.
First, managers should communicate openly with their employees, and invite them to share how they prefer to express their passion. Rather than assuming that everyone on your team expresses passion in the same way, take the time to learn about the behaviors and forms of expression that are most natural for each individual.
Importantly, in these conversations, make sure to avoid judgmental reactions. While your employees’ style may not be intuitive to you, it’s your job as their manager to understand how they express themselves and recognize their passion regardless of whether it conforms to stereotypical expectations.
2. Collaboratively identify new ways to express passion.
Next, once you’ve invested in learning more about how your team expresses passion, work with them to bridge any gaps between their expressions and your perceptions. For example, if an employee shares that they’re not very comfortable with ostentatious, public displays of passion, perhaps they can demonstrate their commitment and dedication through other forms of communication, such as written reports or one-on-one discussions.
You can also collaboratively identify ways of working that may be most likely to set you and your team up for success. For instance, if you’re managing a more introverted employee, maybe you can reduce the number of meetings or impromptu conversations, and instead create longer time blocks for uninterrupted, focused, independent work. Rather than pushing employees to align with managers’ expectations for what a passionate employee looks or sounds like, managers should work together with employees to find ways of expressing passion that work for everyone.
3. Reward passionate performance — not performative passion.
Finally, once you’ve worked with your team to identify the ways in which they express their passion, it’s up to you to reward that true passion — rather than falling prey to the biased assumption than extroverted behaviors are the only way to demonstrate passion. Whether it’s in performance evaluations or decisions around who gets coveted assignments, promotions, raises, or bonuses, managers must work to ensure they allocate rewards based on meritocratic measures of performance.
This is especially important because encouraging performative expressions of passion doesn’t just favor extroverts. In some cases, engaging in behaviors that may seem to convey passion can be actively harmful to employees and organizations. For example, many employees in our studies considered working long hours and going above and beyond to be indicative of passion, yet our prior research has shown that these behaviors can actually lead to burnout and exhaustion. As such, it’s critical for managers to avoid pushing people toward these counterproductive activities, and to instead be intentional about rewarding behavior that corresponds to real, performance-enhancing passion.
Expressing Passion as an Introvert
Of course, as with any bias, managers are unlikely to fully overcome their subconscious assumptions around the behaviors that indicate passion. So what can introverted employees do to adapt and succeed despite this deeply rooted bias?
On the one hand, our research points to tactical steps introverts can take to bridge the gap between their internal experience and externally recognized expressions of passion. By intentionally engaging in the extroverted behaviors that may come less naturally to them, such as speaking up more in meetings, or adopting a more animated communication style, introverts can make their passion more visible to others. For instance, Steven Spielberg has shared that as an introvert, he “work[s] overtime to put up a facade to persuade people that [he is] not shy.”
At the same time, this sort of impression management can come at a cost. Research has shown that when more introverted individuals engage in extroverted activities, it can deplete their emotional reserves, ultimately harming their long-term performance and well-being. Moreover, our analysis found that the most visible expressions of passion were also the most emotionally exhausting. As such, introverted employees may want to carefully balance the trade-offs of this approach, and only push themselves to engage in these extroverted expressions of passion when they have energy to spare.
Harvard Business Review